December 11, 2013, 11:30 am
A Geopolitical Twist in the Foreign Film RaceBy LARRY ROHTER
Every now and then, the Oscar competition for best foreign-language film is enlivened when it turns out that filmmakers from different places have tackled the same subject, unaware that someone else had the same idea. That’s the case this year, but with an additional geopolitical twist: the director of one of the films involved is an Israeli, and the director of the other is Palestinian.
“Bethlehem,” co-written and directed by Yuval Adler, and “Omar,” co-written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad, are thrillers that focus on the complex relationship between an Israeli intelligence agent and one of his secret informants, a troubled Palestinian teenager. Not only that, the two movies have been set in towns whose names have deep religious resonance for Christians, Jews and Muslims (Bethlehem and Nazareth), and end in identical fashion.
“By the way, it’s a true-to-life ending that I first read about in the newspaper,” Mr. Abu-Assad said of the conclusion to the two films. “I think that any filmmaker who will read this in the newspaper will immediately think, ‘Oh this is good for a movie.’”
The similarities do not stop there. Mr. Adler and Mr. Abu-Assad came to their careers as directors somewhat belatedly, after working in technical fields. Both also cast nonprofessionals, in their film acting debuts, in lead roles, and have dialogue in Arabic and Hebrew.
We’re not done yet: at least one Palestinian actor auditioned for both films, and the father of an actress who appeared in Mr. Abu-Assad’s film plays a role in Mr. Adler’s film. Additionally, in the United States, their two films even have the same prestigious distributor of foreign movies, Adopt Films.
“In the beginning, we felt like ‘Oh, is this a good idea?’” Mr. Abu-Assad said, referring to Adopt’s acquisition of both films “But now I think it’s a very good idea.”
Despite their many striking similarities, there are also important differences between “Bethlehem” and “Omar,” in emphasis and tone. In separate interviews conducted this fall, Mr. Adler and Mr. Abu-Assad discussed their own movies at length and also commented on their reaction to and reading of the other’s film. Those posts will follow shortly.