|As he looks at the rubble surrounding him, Amin, played by Ali Suliman, confronts the devastation within as well.|
Over the last few decades, I have watched dozens of Israeli films, most of them largely supported by Israeli government funding, that have delved into difficult societal problems.
Even if you have trouble watching a film that shows Israel as other than a near-utopian Jewish homeland, you cannot help but admire these Israeli artists who are using their work to try to better the world they live in. On the other side, we are very aware of Israel’s enemies’ efforts to portray it in film and other media in negative ways. So, then, how do we react to a film made by a Lebanese filmmaker that provides some troubling insights into Israeli life and society? Has he even the right to make such a film?
I watched Ziad Doueiri’s new film, “The Attack,” and then sat down and talked to the film director, to try to better understand the man and his movie. This Beirut-born filmmaker has known nothing but war. He grew up during Lebanon’s civil war and was an eyewitness to the turmoil of the last decades and of Israel’s involvement with Lebanon in the 1980s and ’90s. He admits to having had a great distaste for Israelis when he was younger, but when he was in college in San Diego he was able to meet Israelis and American Jews and gain a broader understanding of the complex Middle East and an appreciation of Israel’s unique situation in that part of the world.
Doueiri admitted to me that for this, his third film, he was looking to move away from the problems of the Middle East, but his agent badgered him and pushed him to consider the Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra’s award-winning, bestselling novel, “The Attack.”
He said that when he read it, he felt “compelled by this great book.” What he liked was that it did not repeat “the same slogans” about what goes on in the Middle East. “We’ve heard it so many times. I was saturated by it – always talking about the victim and the victimizer, the oppressor and the oppressed.”
He felt that it was “time to move on,” and he saw the book as taking a different path. “It showed the voyage of this main character”- a Christian Arab citizen of Israel – “who grew up in Israel and studied in Tel Aviv and his search for the truth.”
Doueiri’s film begins with Amin, a Tel Aviv-based physician, being showered with accolades and an award for his outstanding work. This is clearly a man who is highly respected by his colleagues. They do not see him as an Arab, a Christian, or anything but a dedicated Israeli doctor. Shortly after the ceremony, he hears a bomb go off and immediately goes into action to try to save lives.
The explosion is a suicide attack.
It is at this moment that we begin to see what will separate this Israeli from the other Israelis in his life, who until this moment have been his friends, his neighbors, his colleagues.
Amin has not seen his wife for many hours. When he is unable to reach her by phone he despairs, fearing that she might have been injured or killed in the attack. This is a kneejerk reaction familiar to anyone who has family or friends in Israel.
But there seems to be something else at work! At this moment we see the piercing cinematic touch of this highly talented filmmaker as he weaves a story about relationships, broken friendships, suspicion, politics, and what it means to be the outsider. At the film’s core is something that seems to be wrong in the relationship between Amin and his wife, Siham. The film moves forward, with some tension, to provide some light. As director Doueiri said, “How can you be married to someone for 15 years – modern, beautiful, Christian – and not see anything coming. How could that have happened?”
And what did happen is the central plot in this powerful portrait of Israeli society.
Doueiri, who is based in Paris, shot this film in Israel and the Palestinian territories with a crew made up of French, Palestinians, and Israeli Jews. Because portions were shot in Israel, the film has been banned in Doueiri’s native Lebanon.
What makes this brilliant film so special is that events shape the story with little finger pointing. As Doueiri emphasized to me, the story is not about good vs. bad, but good vs. good. “It never says that I have my point of view and yours is invalid,” he said. Doueiri tries to have us see each side of the personal, political, and relational conflicts of this story.
This film is not to be missed. It opens in New York today.