When it comes to an even-handed look at Israel, the forthcoming film The Attack doesn’t sound very promising. Based on a novel by an Algerian army officer, directed and cowritten by a Lebanese Arab, and tackling a Tel Aviv cafe bombing from the perspective of a terrorist’s family, you might expect The Attack to show up as the Al Jazeera movie of the week.
In fact, The Attack is a nuanced, intimate look at the complicated identities of Israel’s Arab citizens. And its reception in the Arab world is a case study in the failure of Israel’s neighbors to consider a narrative at odds with their own.
Directed by Ziad Doueiri with financing from (gulp) Qatar, Egypt, France, and Belgium, The Attack tells the story of an Israeli Arab surgeon whose wife is suspected of carrying out a suicide attack that kills scores of Israelis, including children. Amin Jaafari is a respected surgeon, with a modernist home in a sleek Tel Aviv suburb. He socializes easily with his Jewish colleagues, and offers a call for coexistence at an awards ceremony that opens the film.
Jaafari is on duty when the attack’s bloodied victims are brought to the hospital, but one nightmare gives way to another as he is subjected to harsh interrogation and told of the accusations against his wife. Blindsided, Jaafari travels across the Green Line to Nablus and Jenin, seeking answers from his wife’s relatives and the shadowy factions that seem to operate out of both a mosque and a church.
None of these answers is pat, however. Doueiri suggests how an Israeli raid on an Arab village and the daily indignities of occupation could radicalize an otherwise bourgeois Arab Israeli, but he also allows Jaafari to rail against the terrorist ringleaders who blithely send others to do their dirty work. He portrays the suspicion that surrounds an Arab citizen who has otherwise entered the Israeli mainstream, but also shows a cosmopolitan Israel that creates the conditions for such integration.
Because the film refuses to take sides, at least overtly, pro-Israel viewers might have a hard time with it. Some Arab viewers definitely have a hard time with it: Although the film earned rave reviews at film festivals, Lebanese authorities refused to enter it into competition for an Academy Award, ostensibly because Doueiri, a Lebanese citizen, travelled to Israel and used Israeli actors. Last month, the Arab League asked its 22 member nations to boycott the film.
The Attack will have its U.S. premiere on June 21, although I got a chance to see it as part of the New York Film Critics Series in Paramus. I also got to exchange e-mails with Doueiri, who still faces legal action in Lebanon for his role in making the film.
“The film showed at the Marrakesh film festival then at the Dubai film festival,” he told me. “The reaction was positive overall, but there was also heavy criticism against it because the film shows the Israeli perspective. The nuance in the film was viewed as being sort of sympathetic to Israel instead of taking a hard line against it.”
Others criticized the casting of a Jewish actress, Reymond Amsalem, as the surgeon’s Arab-Christian wife.
“It’s considered too pro-Palestinian for Americans and too pro-Israeli for Europeans,” said Doueiri. “The truth is, we wanted to be neutral, show everyone’s point of view, whether or not we agree with it. And it’s not just about the conflict; it’s also very much a love story between a man and a woman.”
I asked him how easy it was for a Lebanese director to work in Israel and the territories.
While he was hassled whenever he crossed back into Israel, “both sides were very cooperative all the way through,” he said. “The crew was mixed between Palestinians, Israelis, and Europeans. It went very smoothly. All the Nablus people asked us was not to portray Nablus in a negative aspect, but the Palestinian authorities didn’t ask us to examine or look at the script. They trusted us and made the filming very smooth.”
The director was adamant that the movie was made without pressure from either side. “It was filmed the way it was written; no actor or producer has once asked me to modify anything whatsoever,” he said.
When we spoke, Doueiri wasn’t sure how much trouble he faced in Lebanon, to which he has returned after long stints in Los Angeles. “I doubt the Lebanese authorities would apply the law since it would be an embarrassment to a government already under scrutiny by the international community. But still, I am planning to contest the decision to ban the film.”
Given these pressures and the nature of the Middle East conflict, I asked Doueiri how he was able to resist the tug of propaganda, or ethnic loyalty, or the one-sidedness that infects the Arab-Israeli discourse.
“I believe that the film’s drama stems mainly from this character’s journey into trying to understand the nature and the secret of someone he thought he knew,” he told me. “This has been the essence of this story. Of course, the Middle East context is very relevant, but we were not interested to repeat the same slogans or discourses we’re used to hearing.”