Monday, September 24, 2007

Matt Beynon Rees' "The Collaborator of Bethlehem"

Matt Beynon Rees is an award-winning foreign correspondent and author of the nonfiction work Cain's Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East.

His debut novel, The Collaborator of Bethlehem, is the first in a series about Palestinian sleuth Omar Yussef. Rees lives in Jerusalem.

Here he explains the origins of the story, the problems (and opportunities) with adapting the novel for the screen, and speculates about who might play his protagonist:
The spark for my novel The Collaborator of Bethlehem was my friendship with a Palestinian in late middle-age who lives in the Dehaisha Refugee Camp, a southern neighborhood of Bethlehem. I admired this man deeply for his integrity and decency, despite the violence engulfing his community during the intifada. But I also found him to be extraordinarily prickly. He would become angry at me for my misunderstandings of Palestinian life, for my friendships with others whom he didn't trust, or simply for not having to undergo the same humiliations that were a daily source of pain to him. I made considerable allowances for the pressures under which he lived and enjoyed his wonderful insights and great humor, but even so it was difficult to face his occasional wrath.

On a break from covering the intifada for Time Magazine, in a hotel room in Rome, I decided to turn my friend into Omar Yussef, the schoolteacher forced to turn detective in a lawless Bethlehem. It struck me that instead of feeling hurt by my friend's outbursts, I could view them as research. Omar made it possible for me to grow even closer to my friend.

When I wrote the book, I always had this friend's image, voice and thinking in my mind. I didn't need to place an actor in the role of Omar Yussef -- though I believe that's a good technique for writers seeking to make their characters concrete in their own heads. I always had this friend -- and other friends on whom the main characters are based -- before me.

But as soon as the book sold to Soho Press in the U.S., people began to ask, "Who'll play the lead in the movie version?"

Of course, it depends on just who buys the movie rights. It strikes me that it isn't likely to be a big studio, because even though the book isn't political I think big studios would be put off simply by the fact that it's about the Palestinians. That makes it unlikely that Al Pacino will play Omar -- though his ability to be both raging and soft would make him terrific for the role. I doubt the movie will be made in Arabic and, in any case, the best Arabic crossover actor, Omar Sharif, is now a little too old for Omar. (I'd expect it to be filmed in the Middle East, of course -- though Bethlehem might be too sensitive a location, because some local institutions get it in the neck in my book.) Most likely, it'll be made by a smaller production company, perhaps in a co-production stretching across many European (financing) borders.

My pick would be Bruno Ganz, the great Swiss actor. Omar has to demonstrate a wide range of emotions, from the sympathetic relationship he has with his granddaughter to the prickliness of his friendship with Bethlehem's police chief to the bravery and aggression with which he confronts the lawless gunmen of the town. Ganz could handle that. If you've seen him as the sensitive waiter in the wonderful Italian love story Bread and Tulips or as Adolf Hitler in his final days in Downfall, you'll know what I mean about Ganz's range.

He also seems to speak just about every European tongue, so whoever finances the movie can ask him to play Omar in their language. Whether he's shooting in Tunisia or Turkey.
Read more about the novel at Matt Beynon Rees' website and his blog.

The Page 69 Test: The Collaborator of Bethlehem.

--Marshal Zeringue