Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman, Paradise Now) is an Israeli Palestinian surgeon, fully assimilated into Tel Aviv society. He has a loving wife, an exemplary career, and many Jewish friends. But his picture perfect life is turned upside down after a suicide bombing in a restaurant leaves nineteen dead, and the Israeli police inform him that his wife, Sihem (Reymonde Amsellem, Lebanon) who also died in the explosion, was responsible. Convinced of her innocence, Amin abandons the relative security of his adopted homeland and enters the Palestinian territories in pursuit of the truth. Once there, he finds himself in ever more dangerous places and situations. Determined, he presses on seeking answers to questions he never thought he would be asking.
After leaving Lebanon during the Civil War, French-Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri graduated with a film degree from San Diego State University. Mr. Doueiri previously served as camera operator on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. His first film, the critically acclaimed Cannes Film Festival Directors Fortnight selection West Beirut, put him on the map as one of the most promising directors to come out of the Middle East. Produced by Jean Bréhat and Rachid Bouchareb (Outside the Law, Days of Glory), THE ATTACK is Mr. Doueiri’s third film.
Bijan Tehrani: The Attack is a very surprising, interesting and challenging film for any kind of audience. How did you come up with the idea for this film?
Ziad Doueiri: It’s actually not my idea. I was contacted by a studio who had read the book and they contacted me after having seen my last film, Lila Says. They wanted to find out if I was interested in adapting this book into a film. At the beginning, I was very reluctant to do anything about the Middle East because I was a little bit tired of it. I was living in Beirut, I just wanted to do something else, but my agent insisted I just read it. So he sent me the book in Beirut – it actually started in 2006 – and I read it in a coffee shop by the beach in Beirut and absolutely loved it. I said, “ok, fine, we’ll adapt it.” That’s how it started. I just absolutely loved that book.
BT: Tell us a bit about your background.
ZD: I started my career working as a grip and electrician in Los Angeles on Hollywood films. Then I started doing camera work. I really wanted to do camera work, so for a long long time, I worked as a a camera assistant. I was enjoying being on the set, the craftsmanship. I wanted to learn how it goes on the set. Then, in 1997, I just finished a film called Jackie Brown and I decided to just sit and write, so I wrote my first film. I went to France, found financing in France, and did my first film called West Beirut. After that, I did another film also financed by France called Lila Says, and then I started writing a new project when I got that call from the US, asking me if I was interested to do that film.
BT: This film is going over a very sensitive borderline of subjects. When I was watching it I was thinking it would be very challenging and hard to keep the balance and stay as an observer to the events. How did you manage to do that?
ZD: I didn’t necessarily want to keep the balance; I just didn’t want to make a militant film. I didn’t want to please the Israeli side and please the Palestinian side: I was not interested in that. The film is not neutral. I just wanted to show both perspectives. I wanted to say that despite the fact that there is an occupier and an occupied, both sides have a perspective that is very valid. Don’t forget the film is not reality. The film does not necessarily reduce and duplicate reality. Dramatically on a film, it’s interesting to have two opposing points of view and both of them are very powerful. I wanted to show that no matter where you are, no matter how you act, you still have a perspective. I may disagree with it, but the Israeli have a point of view. It was a delicate balance when I was writing the script with Joelle Touma, because it could be portrayed as being sympathetic to the Israelis, this is a criticism we get but it’s really not true. I show both perspectives. I think dramatically it’s interesting, especially about this conflict.
BT: Maybe at the beginning it gives the impression that it is more made from the Israeli side. When the film goes through the second half, you see that you are as an observer, like the doctor, realizing that the truth doesn’t have one face. I think it’s great the main character is someone who doesn’t take sides and I think he helps the audience get a better understanding of what is going on. Was this done intentionally?
ZD: Yes. It was done intentionally because you want to show that this doctor has chosen humanity over conflict. He believes he is a doctor, he is into saving lives, whether it’s a Jew or an Arab, it doesn’t matter. But you also understand slowly towards the end of the film that if you try to be neutral, and you try to be objective in the conflict, you will eventually pay a price for it, and that’s why he paid the price by being rejected by both societies in the end. So that’s his character’s arch, from somebody who’s very well integrated in the beginning to somebody who’s not integrated anywhere. This is what we wanted to show in the film, which is slightly different from the book by the way.
BT: How is the film received in both the Israeli and the Arab world?
ZD: It’s not released yet. It’s supposed to be released really soon, but it showed in festivals in America, Toronto, Telluride, San Sebastian in Europe, in the Morocco film Festival, in the Dubai Film Festival, and so far the reaction is good, but you can’t judge really from the film festivals. I am curious to find out how the Israelis are going to react. The other news is that this film was supposed to be released in the Arab world this month but it was banned, which is very sad but what can I do?
BT: That’s the unfortunate thing.
ZD: The Arabs think that because I show the Israeli perceptive, that means I betray the Arab Palestinian cause and the Israeli think… I am not talking about all Arabs or Israeli but some of the news, some of the spectators, whether hey are American Jews or French Jews, they think that I justified suicide bombings, which I did not, and they felt that I should have condemned much more the character of the wife. In the film, she’s shown in an innocent, pathetic way because her husband loves her, but some people reacted like I am not taking a very strong against terrorism and suicide-bombers. But that’s not the point of the film. My film is not to pick a very strong stand, I’m not here to make a political message or a social message. I’m not here to make a psychological message. I’m not here to make any message at all. I thought dramatically it’s more interesting to examine every aspect. Why she did it, is it correct? is it incorrect? It is a moral dilemma. That’s what I wanted to show, a moral dilemma, and I thought about it purely from a dramatic point of view, not from a political point of view. I did not want to do politics. I really didn’t. We knew from the start this film was not going to please everybody, especially in Israel and Palestine where this is such a passionate subject, that raises a lot of anger, but I still have faith that this film will be well accepted. I hope people will see it for its artistic merit, not for the message. I did not set out to write something about a message.
BT: I heard from many young people, including my own daughter who had not much background of this whole story, that this is a very important film that should be watched. I think this is so important. I admire the distributors of this film for picking such a great film for distribution. I think it’s important because not only is it the issue of the Palestinians and Israeli, it also concerns the rest of the world. For example in the United States the majority think people over there are crazy and just fighting with each other. I think this film can open their eyes to what is really happening
ZD: To be very honest, when we set down to write it, all the issues you are talking about were in my subconscious. They were not in my conscious. Did I write it for an American audience? I don’t know, I worked so much in America and I understood the American structure but the film in a way has its own efficiency. I am not sure how to answer.
BT: All I am saying is that this film is important for people who don’t have much idea of this part of the world and everybody’s role in this world is important in order to finish this conflict.
ZD: I hope the audience will react. I’m not going to tell you that it’s important for audiences to come and see the film. Every filmmaker will tell you, I made a film and it’s important that the audience sees it, but does it have some social weight possibly? Some political weight? Is it going to open eyes of the public when they see the film, especially an American audience? It’s possible: that’s the reaction I got first-hand from Telluride and Toronto where a lot of Americans, and American Jews saw the film. A lot of people came to me and said , “this film is making us think a lot, and we are actually a little bit perturbed, we are affected by it”. But I’m curious to see how the Middle-Eastern audience is going to react. We’ll see.
BT: I think it’s one of those films that stays with you.
ZD: Because it’s a tragedy, it ends on a very dramatic tone, it has a lot of complexity. It was a big challenge to do this film, because I wanted to be able to get inside this character’s head, the doctor. How can we be with him all the time? How can we understand his pain? How can we understand his agony, his questions? I had to really think of a way to make that book work, because the book is fantastic, but it’s written in the first person, it’s all internal. And I chose with the screenwriter not to do the book with a voice-over to get into his head even though we contemplated that solution. We wanted to just be able to find ways to get into this guy’s head and stay with him the whole movie. I think in all modesty we succeeded in doing that. I don’t know how it worked, but I trusted my dialogues, and my camera, and the actor especially. A lot of it is organic work. Sometimes you don’t know what’s going on. You don’t know how the film is going to work, but I’m happy about it. The film was very difficult to do, not in terms of subject, but the difficulty was in making a low-budget film.
BT: How did you go about casting?
ZD: It was very easy. We went to Tel-Av-iv and we went to Palestine. We had casting directors and I asked them to show me who they had got. And I started seeing actors, and interviewing some of them, then selecting. I haven’t seen many Israeli films so I didn’t really know the Israeli actors, and I also haven’t seen Palestinian actors that much. I really had to go the syllabus way: do a casting and this is how I picked the actors.
BT: How did you come up with the style of the movie? It has a very dynamic, interesting style. Was that form prior to the shoot and how much did you manage to do in editing?
ZD: The style of the film, to tell you the truth, I got from listening to two musicians, commercial musicians. One is Moby and the other one is William Orbit. I’ve been compulsively listening to those two people. They have nothing to do with Middle-Eastern music – they do electronic music, very non-ethnic. It just inspires me with images a lot. Also, this is bizarre to say but there is this film, Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, which left me with such an impact I saw it 8 times! That’s how much I was affected by the way that movie was made, and suddenly I started to realize if I was going to copy Terrence Malick’s film, I would suck up my whole film. That’s how much the visuals affected me. I had to divorce myself from that film completely and go back to my roots but Tree of Life really left a visual impact on me like I’ve never seen before. So between Tree Of Life and Moby and William Orbit, i was inspired.
BT: How do you see the chances of the film on the US market?
ZD: I’m very glad that we have a US distributor. For a Middle-Eastern film dealing with complex issues, I didn’t expect an American release. Actually the American studios were the first to buy the film. So I’m very happy. How it will do later, I don’t know. It’s still a foreign film but I’m so happy that it has US distribution. That’s a very tough market to break into.