‘The Whole Experience Opened My Eyes’

The making of the nuanced ‘The Attack,’ with a crew of Israelis and Palestinians, gave Ziad Doueiri a new view of the Jewish state.

06/18/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
“The Attack,” Photos courtesy of Cohen Film Collection
“The Attack,” Photos courtesy of Cohen Film Collection

Ziad Doueiri is nothing if not frank.

“I’m pissed off,” the Lebanese-born filmmaker says. “They think they’re punishing Israel. Well, they’re punishing me.”

The object of Doueiri’s anger is the entire Arab world, where his new film, “The Attack,” has been comprehensively banned, including the land of his birth.

His sin, apparently, is that he shot the film, which opens in New York on June 21, in Israel and the West Bank with a mixed cast and crew. That choice violates the ongoing economic boycott. Never mind that Doueiri was providing work for Palestinian actors and technicians and giving them experience with the state-of-the-art Israeli technology.

Or that Doueiri’s project had the blessing of the Palestinian Authority.

“The only thing they asked me was not to portray Nablus in a bad way because they are trying to improve the city’s image,” Doueiri said.

Neither the PA nor the Israeli government had script approval, “and nobody criticized us,” he added. “We were left alone to do the film.”

Given the film’s subject matter, that in itself is a surprise. Adapted by Doueiri and his wife Joelle Touma from a novel by the pseudonymous Algerian author Yasmina Khadra, “The Attack” recounts the story of Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman, in a beautifully calibrated performance), a highly esteemed Palestinian doctor based happily in Tel Aviv, whose wife Siham (Reymonde Amsellem) commits a suicide bombing. Utterly shocked and baffled, Amin begins his own investigation of the woman he thought he knew best. Dragged by his search back to Nablus, he discovers that his own divided identity is more complicated than he realized.

Doueiri readily acknowledges that his own life experience is not so different from that of his physician protagonist, minus the explosions, of course. He divides his time between France, the United States and Lebanon.

“I always felt that I’ve been marginalized by pulling away from both [American and Lebanese] cultures,” he says. “I was never ‘typical,’ and this is a situation that attracts people who are somehow outside society. I didn’t do it on purpose; it goes back to when you’re young.”

With his steel-gray long hair, steel-rimmed glasses and rueful expression, Doueiri looks like the hard-nosed but affectionately playful social studies teacher who tried to inject radical politics into your high school curriculum from time to time. He is someone who was trained in film in the U.S., who worked on the camera crew of films by Quentin Tarantino, Andrew Davis and Roberto Rodriguez, but who persisted in trying to be a part of the emerging post-war Lebanese cinema.

That persistence came with a price, in fact several. After making “West Beirut,” his debut feature, in 1998, it took the director six years to make another feature, “Lila Says” (2004). It took another nine years to bring “The Attack” to the festival circuit and theatrical release.

He is beyond frustration. It’s more like “anguish” he says.

“Nine months after we submitted the original screenplay for ‘The Attack’ the studio that was involved pulled out,” Doueiri recounts. “I’ve been told that ‘you don’t write in a French way, you can’t make these multicultural films.’”

American studios might be willing to make multicultural films, but they aren’t interested in nuanced ones. “The Attack” provides no easy answers and few clear-cut heroes and villains. Amin’s friends are mostly Israeli Jews, and their reaction to the events runs the gamut.

The Lebanese film academy decided the film was “too Israeli” to be their nominee for the foreign-language Oscar.

The actual shooting was probably the easiest part of the process. The Israeli and Palestinian crew got along fine, as usual. “They deal with each other all the time,” Doueiri shrugs.

The biggest consciousness-raising took place inside the director’s head.

“The whole experience opened my eyes,” he says. “I was a child during the Lebanese civil war and I remember Israeli bombardments. So growing up, my view of Israel was completely negative. I’m not coming from a neutral place, but with time I’ve had to re-examine my thinking. Look, [as we worked on the film] you’re sitting with a guy in front of you, working with you, and he’s a nice guy. And Israel went way out on a limb for this film, and I appreciate that.

“The mystified idea I had of Israel — the demonization of Israel — it just wasn’t true,” Doueiri continues. “When I was filming, I realized that the Israelis I was working with were eager to end this conflict. They’re fully aware of the occupation. They’re also caught in a sensitive situation.”

The result for Doueiri was transformative.

“I was a bit calmer as the shoot went on,” he admits. “I started to actually enjoy this experience.”

The change undoubtedly benefitted the final product, he says.

“People on both sides of the conflict are eager to see something new,” Doueiri says. “On this subject opinion is so polarized. I hadn’t set out to do the same thing. Dramatically it’s much more interesting to be nuanced. It’s a relief not having to be didactic. An audience doesn’t want to see a slogan.”

On the other hand, he readily acknowledges that “I know I wasn’t going to please everyone.”

After the initial early shutdown of the film, Doueiri says, “I thought my career was over. I decided I just want to raise my daughter. My wife told me, ‘The hell with it.’”

But help came from unexpected sources — the Doha Film Institute and an Egyptian film company. Both subsequently removed their names from the film, but by then Doueiri had finished it.

“’The Attack’ was [terribly difficult] to make,” he says, shaking his head wearily. “We had a planned budget of $1.5 million, and it’s not like I have real estate and an investment portfolio. Hell, I was making more money as an assistant cameraman in Hollywood than I’ve made from the three features I’ve directed.”

Why did he keep at it? He laughs.

“I just love the job so much, it makes me feel it’s worth it,” he says. “We can’t afford a house, but it’s worth the struggle. I’d die to do this.”

“The Attack” directed by Ziad Doueiri, opens on Friday, June 2,1 at Angelika Film Center  (Mercer and W. Houston Sts.) For information, call (212) 995-2570 or go to www.angelikafilmcenter.com. It's also playing at the Beekman Theatre (1271 Second Ave.) For inforation, call (21) 585-4141, or go to www.beekmantheatre.com. On June 28, the film will begin playing at Cinema 1, 2 & 3 (Third Ave. and 50th St.). In addition, the film will have a special sneak preview on Wednesday, June 19, at 7:30 p.m. at the JCC in Manhattan (76th St. and Amsterdam Ave.).

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