THE ATTACK: A mystery, a political thriller and a love story.

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l to r: Remond Amsalem, director Ziad Doueiri, Ali Sulliman on the set of The Attack; scene from The Attack

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be hard to follow, even for those who live it.  And that’s at the center of a new film called The Attack, based on Yasmina Khadra’s international bestselling novel of the same name and directed by Ziad Doueiri. A special advance screening of this intense drama was recently held at MDC’s Tower Theater for Miami Film Society members, and included a tremendously poignant Q&A via Skype with the writer/director Doueiri, on June 4th.

In the film, Dr. Amin Jafari (Ali Sulliman), a highly respected Palestinian surgeon in Israel loses his wife Siham (Remond Amsalem) to a suicide bombing.  The investigation quickly points to his loving wife as the perpetrator — a modern, Christian, educated, sexy woman who was raised in a bourgeois family — which is not the typical profile of a suicide bomber, propelling Dr. Jafari to understand why.  Convinced of her innocence, despite the evidence growing against her, Amin abandons the relative security of his adopted homeland and enters the Palestinian territories in pursuit of the truth.

West Beirut (1998), Lila Says (2004), director Ziad Doueiri
In the book, Dr. Jafari’s wife was not a Christian but is so in the film. “Because the western audience, Europe and America, have a tendency to believe that every act that’s committed in the Middle East comes from a Muslim fundamentalist.  We wanted to show that it might not necessarily be the case,” said Doueiri.  “But that’s not true,” say a few audience members,  “there have never been Christian suicide bombers, we’ve never heard of them.”  “But that’s not what the story tells.  We just wanted to show that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a religious conflict.  It’s more of a people vs. people,” said Doueiri.

Born in Beirut, and growing up on the Arab side of the conflict, Doueiri eventually left Lebanon in 1982 to study film at San Diego State University, where he began challenging his negative views about Israel after seeing the Holocaust documentary Night and Fog. In the mid-eighties he moved to LA and worked as a camera assistant on several Quentin Tarantino films.  He essentially launched his directorial career with the award-winning chronicle of wartime adolescence in West Beirut (1998).

The Attack (L’attentat) poster; scene from The Attack

Focus Features was initially interested in producing the The Attack, even considering Tom Hanks for the lead role; which Ziad did not think would work, since he felt the film needed to be done in Arabic and Hebrew.  Nevertheless, nine months into the writing, Focus pulled the plug.

It then took Doueiri two years to find producers and financing, and at the end of 2011, French producers secured the rights from the U.S.  Once the main financiers from Qatar and Egypt saw the film at the Dohar Film Festival, they asked Doueiri how much would it cost them to remove their name from the film, because they felt it could cause a lot of problems for them. Doueiri charged them a lot for it, and got it.

Doueiri has expressed opposition to boycotts of Israel, following a 1955 law, which forbids any Lebanese citizen to associate with Israelis, and in 2013 defended his decision by shooting The Attack in Tel Aviv and Nablus, featuring Israeli actors.  Doueiri said his “shooting in Israel isn’t really why the film is being banned and disowned — it’s because The Attack doesn’t demonize Jews.”

Q&A via Skype with director Ziad Doueiri at Tower Theater; scene from The Attack

It is not playing in the occupied territories, so he does not know of the reaction of Christians who live in the occupied territories. But, it is going to play in Israel on July 13th. “Really, really curious to find out how the Israelis are going to react to this film,” said Doueri. “For a lot of Arabs it’s inconceivable to show the other perspective,” said Doueiri, who co-wrote the script with his wife, Joelle Touma, and departed from the novel’s bleaker ending. “They expect a film from the region to be extremely demonizing of Israel. And I didn’t do that.”

The Arab League ban was not limited to commercial theaters, Doueiri said. He said his wife was warned that if she proceeded with a screening for friends in Beirut she would be arrested. “So we cancelled it,” he said.  The film is being distributed in the U.S. by the Cohen Media Group.

During Douieri’s Q&A at Tower Theater, he mentioned that he had hope on an individual level and shared some good advice: “don’t let grief spoil your perspective.” 

The Attack, begins its Miami commercial run at MDC’s Tower Theater on Friday, June 28th. — Tatyana Chiocchetti

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Jaie Laplante

Jaie Laplante is the Miami Film Festival's executive director and director of programming. Learn more about Jaie on Programmers.