‘The Attack’ Filmmaker Boycotted for Filming in Israel

Ralph Seliger interviews Ziad Doueiri, the Arab filmmaker whose movie the Arab world refuses to see.

Ziad Doueiri, a Lebanese-born Muslim filmmaker, admits to having grown up hating Israel (and Christians) before going to college at San Diego State University in 1983. It’s there that he met Jews and Israelis for the first time and commenced an evolution in attitude and perspective. After graduating as a film major in 1986, he began his career as a cameraman in Los Angeles, working with the likes of Quentin Tarantino until leaving the U.S. for France eight years ago. “The Attack,” which opens in theaters Friday, is his third full-length film as a director and screenwriter.

Doueiri is of average physical stature but striking for his dark curly mane and an almost boyish appearance that belies his 49 years. He comes across in person as open and considerate; after energetically answering a question in greater detail than efficient for the brief interview time allotted us, he asked if the interview was “going in the right direction.” One imagines exactly this consideration for the needs of another as grounding his transformation. That, and a curiosity about “the enemy,” back when he still regarded Israelis as his enemy.

That Doueiri filmed in Israel with Israeli-Jewish actors and crew (he also filmed in the West Bank and employed Palestinian actors and crew) was viewed as traitorous in his Lebanese homeland, and broke the economic boycott against Israel. He has also been fiercely criticized in Arab countries for portraying Israelis as real people—with some good, some bad and many in-between—and for depicting the suffering of Israeli victims of terror more graphically than he depicts the suffering of Palestinians. The latter, however, is pictured in at least one scene: the main character, Dr. Amin Jaafari—a highly-regarded Palestinian surgeon and Israeli citizen working at a Tel Aviv hospital—visits the devastated site of the Jenin refugee camp as he tries to unravel the reasons for his wife’s seemingly inexplicable act of terrorism, which propels this story.

So his film will not be shown openly in the Arab world, where he hoped it would usher in a public debate on the nature of terrorism. The government of Qatar and an Egyptian producer have withdrawn their names from the film, despite being major financial backers. And the Arab League has not relaxed its boycott rules in the interest of open discourse and portraying Israelis in more fully human terms.

But Doueiri does not despair: “You’d be surprised how many people [in Arab countries] are curious about Israel—but they are scared. They don’t want to be seen entering the movie.” Explaining further, he says that it’s “self-censorship,” even more than authoritarian governments, that hold people back.

He said of his time in Israel that almost everyone he’s met admits that there’s an occupation, and that “it needs to end.” He’s seen “The Gatekeepers” twice and was very moved by the ability of those Shin Bet veterans to be “self-critical.” Doueiri readily admits that there’s no parallel sentiment within the Arab world, that there’s an inability to be self-critical regarding Israel.

Doueiri himself was transformed in this regard by a viewing of the 1955 French Holocaust documentary “Night and Fog” during his student days. “We [Arabs] didn’t believe that Jews suffered, we didn’t believe they had the right to suffer,” he explained. He described a “slowly progressive path by which your Jewish enemy is demystified.” He struggled with himself “to feel empathy about people you hated. You meet Jews and Israelis; you learn their narratives... I see there are two sides, there are two narratives to each story; both have an equal amount of righteousness. And this makes it much more interesting dramatically [for a filmmaker], to see ambivalence.”

When asked about other Israeli films he’s seen, he mentioned that he grew up on the beachfront avenue in Beirut depicted in “Waltz with Bashir.” And his co-star, Reymonde Amsellem, who plays the surgeon’s enigmatic wife, is an Israeli actress who played a small but unforgettable role as a Lebanese woman literally stripped naked by the embers of war in “Lebanon.” Doueiri indicates that Amsellem is very analytical and required long discussions with him on the nature of her character in “The Attack.” He considers her a friend and remains in touch with her, as with others he worked with in Israel.

Finally, he expressed regret that he’s unable to attend the opening of “The Attack” in Jerusalem. When I asked why, thinking he must be busy with promotional duties for the film here, he responded that he’s already “crossed too many lines,” and that going to Jerusalem—which most Arabs regard as a holy city under Israeli occupation—would be one too many. He said he’d fear for his relatives back in Lebanon if he went.

For Doueiri, real life runs somewhat parallel to what the filmmaker says about his main character, who in the end is lost between the two warring peoples: “The conflict will hold friendship hostage.” Still, he’s not deterred from revisiting the issue in his next project, “Affaires Etrangères” (Foreign Affairs), starring Gérard Depardieu as a French diplomat recruited to arrange a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement.