By NANA ASFOUR
The Attack': A clip from the film directed by Ziad Doueiri about a Palestinian surgeon who discovers secrets about his wife following a suicide bombing.
Several months before his native country decided to ban his new film about the husband of a Palestinian suicide bomber, the Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri got into a car with tinted windows and set out to an undisclosed location in the southern suburbs of Beirut, headed for a meeting with Hezbollah, the Lebanese paramilitary group.
Doueiri’s 1998 feature debut, “West Beirut,” a largely autobiographical film about his childhood during the Lebanese Civil War, had played to great success at home and abroad. He wanted to gauge Hezbollah’s response to his third feature film, “The Attack.” Based on a best-selling novel by the Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra, the story follows a secular Palestinian doctor living in Tel Aviv who is trying to understand why his wife was driven to commit a heinous suicide attack. “I absolutely wanted the film to be shown in Lebanon,” Doueiri told a New York audience at an early screening of the film in April.
Doueiri sought out Hezbollah not solely because of the tricky subject matter of “The Attack,” but also because to make the film, the director had broken Lebanese laws prohibiting citizens from traveling to Israel or doing business with the Israelis. Doueiri knew he was going against the rules when he decided to shoot “The Attack” in Israel. “From the time that you are a sperm, you know about those laws,” he told me. But he was determined to tell this particular story as authentically as possible — which meant filming in Israel. “No other city looks like Tel Aviv,” he said.
With the help of his lawyer mother, he sent a certified letter to the Ministry of Information, intended for the Army, alerting them of his intentions to go to Tel Aviv and asking for their “guidance” on how to proceed. Doueiri didn’t want to be accused of being a spy. He never heard back. “Fifteen days later, I packed my bags and left,” he said. He used his American passport, which he had obtained during his two decades in L.A., where he worked as a cameraman on Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.”
The film has strong and sympathetic Israeli characters, played by some of Israel’s leading actors. Much of the film is actually in Hebrew, a language Doueiri does not speak. As a Lebanese living in West Beirut, “I grew up through one Israeli bombing after another,” Doueiri told me, and he saw the Israelis as “the Darth Vader of the Middle East.” But as an adult, “my view of them was demystified.”
While not “anti-Palestinian,” Doueiri told me, it is also “not anti-Israeli.” By presenting the complexities of the conflict in the film, he hoped to “try to enlighten people.” But he knew that this might prove problematic on multiple fronts.
Arab financers have since scampered to dissociate themselves from it, accusing its filmmaker of bias in favor of the Israelis. Doueiri says the Doha Film Institute and an Egyptian company that together had put up a substantial portion of the film’s $1.5 million cost, demanded that their names be taken out of the opening credits when they saw the film, because, as he put it, they said, “You show Israeli kids being blown up, but you don’t show any Palestinian kids being blown up.” (“We do not include our credits in every project we support,” an institute spokesman said.)
Doueiri’s decision to cast the Israeli actress Reymonde Amsellem, whose parents are Moroccan, in the role of the bomber has also caused wide consternation among his fellow Arabs. Because of the nude scenes, the director couldn’t find a Palestinian actress for the role. That character proved a challenge in other ways as well. Doueiri and his screenwriting partner, Joelle Touma, who is also his wife, tried to come up with a possible motive for the woman’s terrorist act, and at one point considered making her bipolar. (“It’s very trendy these days,” Doueiri said.) Ultimately they decided not to pin it on a single explanation. “We don’t think that someone can commit an act like that for one reason,” Doueiri told me.
When Doueiri met with Hezbollah last year, “The Attack” had not yet come under Arab scrutiny. On the day of the visit, Doueiri and his father (who insisted on coming along “ ’cause he knows I have a big mouth,” the filmmaker told the New York audience) met with one of the heavyweights in Hezbollah. “He sits down,” Doueiri said. “He says, ‘What do you want from me, from the Hezbollah?’ ” Based on the long conversation, Doueiri understood that Hezbollah could not support such a project but was willing to look the other way. Soon after, the Lebanese government informed Doueiri that they would allow the film to be released.
Then, a week before he came to New York for the screening this spring, Doueiri received news that “The Attack” was now banned in Lebanon. The movie won the grand prize when it was shown at the Marrakesh International Film Festival in December and will play worldwide, but no Arab country has yet agreed to release it. (The Israeli press has latched on to the ban, drawing attention to Lebanon’s hard-line approach to its neighbor.)
Doueiri has circulated an online petition against the ban. Having made an adoptive home in Paris with Touma, he faces potential prosecution if he returns to Lebanon. He’s now resigned to the idea that Lebanon is not going to rescind the ban and that “The Attack” will not play to the audience he most cares about and which avidly follows his work. He has decided to stay away for now. “It’s not the right time for me to get entangled with the Lebanese government,” he told me in Paris. “I have a 4-year-old daughter. If I were single, I would take that risk. But I can’t leave my daughter now.”
Doueiri is currently trying to find financing for two Middle East-related projects he has been working on for some time; Gérard Depardieu has expressed interest in one of them.
“We’ve tried armed resistance, and it did not work,” Doueiri told me. “But when you win intellectually, when you win artistically, culturally, when you make movies that get seen, and you tell your story and you’re honest about telling your story, you’re more likely to create change.”
Click here to watch the preview