Banned in Arab World, Lebanese Filmmaker's 'The Attack' Premieres in Israel

Ziad Doueiri, who broke the law in Lebanon by coming to Israel to make a controversial movie about a suicide bombing, dials in for a virtual Q&A session with his Israeli audience.

Amin Jaafari is a successful and popular surgeon at an Israeli hospital. He lives in a plush Herzliya villa, drives a fancy car, is happily married and, in an opening scene of Ziad Doueiri’s new film, “The Attack,” is being honored with one the country’s top medical awards.

Jaafari is also an Arab – and therein lies the crux of the film, which deals with this fictionalized character’s journey to understand how and why his beautiful wife, Sihem, in the very next scene in the film, blows herself up in a crowded Tel Aviv restaurant – killing 17 people, most of them children attending a birthday party.

The journey Jaafari embarks on is “about more than just his trying to understand his wife’s actions,” explained Ali Suliman, the actor who portrays this lead character in the film. Jaafari is trying to discover where he himself – a Palestinian-Israeli with sympathies, friends and family on both sides of the separation wall, fits in, said Suliman, speaking this week at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, where "The Attack" had its Israel premiere.

The film, says Alesia Weston, director of the Cinematheque and an old friend of Doueiri’s, manages to – sensitively, and without an agenda – “ask more questions than it answers, leaving viewers thinking.”

Meanwhile, in a case of life imitating art, some similar questions of identity and where one belongs were being played out in recent weeks in the real life of the film’s director, Doueiri – a Paris-based Lebanese filmmaker who broke the laws of that country by coming to Israel to make his movie.

The Arab financers behind the $1.5 million film, including the Doha Film Institute and an Egyptian company, demanded their names be taken out of the opening credits when they saw the final product. The Lebanese government – reportedly displeased with the nuanced portrayal of Israelis, as well as with Doueiri’s decision to cast Jewish Israeli actors in the film (including Reymond Amsalem in the role of Sihem) – banned the movie. With the exception of Morocco, so far no Arab country has agreed to release it.

At the Cinematheque, however, where the movie played to sold-out audiences, the festival staff is proud of the inclusion of "The Attack" – as well as that of another film about a female suicide bomber, the Canadian film "Inch’Allah" – in the program.

“Israelis are over-sensitive and are offended too easily,” says Avinoam Harpak, the film festival’s program director. “But as a festival we do not deal with censorship. We deal with quality. I feel that showing films that do not necessarily compliment us or portray our point of view is our strength. It shows we can deal with it. We can hear and even learn from other perspectives.”

“We did not even think twice,” adds Weston about the decision to show the films. “We know how sophisticated our audience is and how willing they are to engage.”

"Inch’Allah," a more cliched film with a clearer agenda and bias against Israel, was written and directed by Canadian actress/filmmaker and activist Anais Barbeau-Lavalette. It tells the tale of Chloe, a young obstetrician working at a Red Crescent clinic in a refugee camp near Ramallah while living in West Jerusalem. Her best friend in her neighborhood is Ava, an Israel Defense Forces soldier who serves at the very checkpoint Chloe passes through every day to get to work. In Ramallah, Chloe’s best friend is one of her patients, Rand, whose husband is languishing in Israeli jail.

"Inch’Allah," like "The Attack," opens with a suicide bombing. The terrorist here – who sits down at a busy Jerusalem café, orders a coffee, and then blows herself and all those around her up – is, it is revealed in time, Rand, Chloe’s friend. And again, like in "The Attack," the doctor in the story – in this case Chloe – is pressed to choose sides and decide how she fits in and what she believes.

“You could say we are all on some form of this journey,” says Evgenia Dodina, an Israeli-Jewish actress who plays Kim, Jaafari’s Russian colleague and friend in "The Attack." Dodina’s character at first takes the distraught Jaafari into her home and supports him, but by movie’s end, she has become disappointed in what she sees as his inability to choose sides in the conflict, and breaks off the relationship with him.

“What I liked about the script of 'The Attack' is that it was not pro-anyone,” Dodina explains. “There are no answers here. The characters are all transforming and going through processes, as they try to make sense of what they believe.”

Doueiri, in a question-and-answer session with the Cinematheque audience via Skype at the end of the premiere, expressed his regret not to have been at the festival in person. “I was anxious to see how this film would play in Israel and I would have loved to be with you … but this is a sensitive matter,” he said. “Even though I believe people who work in the arts should be encouraged to cross boundaries, I breached laws.”

Doueiri went on to say that he had long been “emotionally curious” to spend time in Israel, to demystify those neighbors whom he, and many others in Lebanon, usually think of only as “the enemy,” and even to try to understand their perspective.

“It’s not that I forgot the realities on the ground,” he said. “But I came to see other aspects of Israel. I might be scrutinized, but I would do it again. These are the journeys we should push ourselves to go on.” 

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