In the middle of his shift as a surgeon at a central Tel Aviv hospital, Doctor Amin Jaafari hears an explosion and rushes outside. It is a suicide attack and, it turns out, his beloved wife Siham is among the fatalities.The plot thickens: In time, Jaafari discovers that she may not have been an innocent bystander.
Considering its heart-wrenching story line, the film “The Attack” could easily be an Israeli production. But it is based on a novel by Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul (under the pen name Yasmina Khadra), and it was written and directed by Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri. In fact, “The Attack” is a unique cinematographic cooperation between Israelis, Palestinians and Lebanese.
Released last year, “The Attack” received considerable critical acclaim, winning the Special Jury Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival 2012 in Spain and the Golden Star at Morocco’s Marrakesh Film Festival. It also garnered glowing reviews at the North American Toronto and Telluride film festivals.
With that kind of international success, Doueiri and his wife and co-writer Joelle Touma, who is also Lebanese, believed the film had a good chance of winning the highest acknowledgment the film industry could bestow upon it: the Oscar for best foreign film. So last September they submitted it to Lebanon’s ministry of culture for nomination.
And were summarily rejected.
“The ministry said it had nothing against the film, but that it wasn’t ‘Lebanese enough.’ They also said they could not have a film with Israeli actors represent Lebanon at the Oscars,” Doueiri told The Times of Israel in a phone interview from Paris, where he currently lives.
“I knew from the start it was a lost cause,” Doueiri said, adding that he was nonetheless hopeful that someone, somewhere in the ministry might just see the value in sending his film for Oscar consideration, especially considering no other Lebanese film was being submitted.
“This was our chance to show we don’t only export hummus and falafel — which is why [the rejection] is so frustrating,” he said.
By shooting in Israel and casting Israeli actors, Doueiri was violating a 1955 Lebanese law. He could even face the death penalty if a Lebanese court interpreted his felony as full-fledged treason
Simply by shooting the film in Israel and casting Israeli actors, Doueiri was violating a 1955 Lebanese law that bans “cooperation with Israeli institutions or acts, inside or outside Israel.” He could even face the death penalty if a Lebanese court interpreted his felony as full-fledged treason.
After securing financing from Qatar, Egypt, France and Belgium, Doueiri spent 11 months filming in Tel Aviv and Nablus, working with top-notch Israeli and Palestinian actors. He said the experience substantially changed his perception of Israel.
“I hated Israel’s guts during the 1982 war and the 2006 war, but I have done my questioning too. I’ve changed.”
Doueiri is not the only one who had qualms about the other side. Israeli actor Uri Gabriel, who plays a police investigator in the film, said that before reading the script he was worried it would be too politicized.
“I had my doubts,” Gabriel told The Times of Israel. “But after some consideration I realized the film had no clear-cut political standpoint. It’s simply a human story.”
The filming process was not without its frustrations, however. Every time the crew needed to cross over from Israel to areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority, it would get stopped and searched by soldiers at the Ariel checkpoint, Doueiri said.
“The 18-year-old Israeli soldier knew we were crossing back and forth every week with our filming equipment, and knew that I had an American passport. When I asked her why she was stopping us every time, she said, ‘Because I feel like stopping you.’ It was just mean.”
The protagonist of Doueiri’s film embarks on a voyage to the West Bank in search of the people who “brainwashed” his wife into committing the suicide bombing. Still, Doueiri insisted the film is far from pro-Israeli.
“The film does not take the Israeli side or the Palestinian side, but its undertones still lean towards the Palestinians,” he said. “At the very end of the film, the hero kind of understands why his wife did what she did, even though he disagrees with it.”
Gabriel, the Israeli actor, said he would love for the film to be screened in the Arab world.
“It is important for people to see how much suffering is caused by fear, prejudice and suspicion. If we saw others simply as human beings, things would be completely solvable.”
Gabriel’s dream may soon be a reality. The Lebanese censorship board has allowed “The Attack” to be screened in Lebanon, on condition that acknowledgment to Israeli institutions be removed from the credits. It is scheduled to open in Lebanese cinemas in April; this would be the first time a Hebrew-speaking film with a largely Israeli cast would appear on a Lebanese silver screen.
“It is an incredible miracle that the Lebanese government allowed the film to go forward,” Doueiri said, while expressing concern that speaking to Israeli press could destroy that accomplishment. “The Lebanese government can now claim that Ziad is in cahoots with the Israelis,” he worried.
The film, Doueiri emphasized, was not rejected in Lebanon for its content but for the Israeli involvement in it. The Israeli perspective on the conflict would still be hard for a Lebanese audience to stomach, he said.
Like the Israeli film “Ajami” of 2009, which deals with social tensions in a crime-ridden neighborhood of Jaffa, “The Attack” strives to convey an objective image of the conflict’s complexity, Doueiri said. ”I wish people would attack the film on its merits, for the way it is directed, written or acted. But they couldn’t find a single artistic flaw. To be honest, it’s one of my best works.”
‘I wish people would attack the film on its merits, for the way it is directed, written or acted. But they couldn’t find a single artistic flaw’
But unfortunately his endeavor is not perceived that way in Lebanon, Doueiri said. In a typical reaction, the “Campaign to boycott supporters of Israel,” a grassroots effort, lashed out at Doueiri for casting Israeli actress Reymond Amsalem in the role of Siham, the female suicide bomber. It also criticized the choice of Tel Aviv as one of the main locations.
“Why did [Doueiri] forget that this city was founded on the ruins of an Arab village called Tel Al-Rabi’, which was ethnically cleansed of its original inhabitants in 1949? Can he deny having ignored the tragedy which still impacts the original inhabitants of Tel Al-Rabi’ and Jaffa?” read a statement issued by the campaign.
The website of the Hezbollah terror group, Al-Manar, also dedicated a detailed expose to “The Attack,” interviewing a legal expert who claimed that “usually countries execute such people, whom they want to cleanse the nation of. Even European laws which prohibit executions allow them in the case of spies and traitors.”
Doueiri is not letting the domestic threats in his home country deter him, however. He plans to travel to Israel in July to participate in the screening of his film at the Jerusalem Film Festival.
“No Lebanese government is going to execute me for going to Israel, but they can screw things up for me,” he said. “I’m not afraid. If I were, I wouldn’t have made the film.”
Follow Elhanan Miller on Twitter