Actor Ali Suliman looking over Nablus, a city in northern Palestine, courtesy of the director
The lights turned on and Ziad Doueiri’s name appeared on the screen. I calmly gathered my things and then exited the theatre. I stress this is because “calm” isn’t usually the adjective most would use to describe coming into contact with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This is the brilliance behind Doueiri’s film and precisely why I wanted to speak with him about it.
Ziad’s film West Beirut is the most beautiful account of the Lebanese Civil War I have yet to encounter, so I assumed he would tackle The Attack in the same way. The film follows the story of Dr. Amin Ja’afari, a prominent Palestinian surgeon who has successfully integrated into Israeli society, and his wife who becomes a suicide bomber.
The film shifts the narrative of the conflict from journalists, politicians, and UN peacekeepers to the narrative of the people who deal with the everyday nuances of living between the two states. The story begins in Tel Aviv, with Amin Ja'afari accepting an award among his Israeli peers. The audience gets a glimpse of his daily life: Amin goes through his daily rounds, has lunch with his colleagues, and seems to lead a mundane life. Amin is first introduced as an individual before circumstances morph him into a Palestinian, a widower, and the husband of a dead suicide bomber.
Ziad keeps the narrative on Amin’s search for truth, his navigation between the two states, and his struggle in conceiving how anyone—let alone his wife of 15 years–can commit such an act. One relates to the protagonists and almost empathizes with the antagonists. Ziad draws out individual details of life in Israel and Palestine, but more importantly, he draws out everything in between.
Ziad skips the political clout surrounding the conflict and presents a human story. The Western reaction to the film has been more or less positive. The reaction in the Arab world, however, has been put on pause, following a decision from the Arab league to ban the film. So I called Ziad in California and spoke with him about the film. The “Western” approach to Arab art, the political channels he had to go through to shoot it in Israel and Palestine, and how he can’t wait for his movie to be pirated in the Arab world, because he's itching to hear what they have to say.
VICE: You’re dealing with an issue that’s quite polarized. How do you get people to focus on the human dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict?
Ziad Doueiri: You just answered your own question, actually. We knew when we started writing the film that it's packed with tension. We don’t want it to be viewed as one-sided or as propaganda or as a slogan-shouting film. We want it to be viewed through the eyes of a main character that's just looking for the truth. This does not mean that the film will not create some talk after it. It's just the nature of things. You have to deal with it. But we don't want to repeat what we already know, what Arabs know, what Israelis know, what Jews know. Everybody knows! And everybody's taken a position. We're trying to see the subject from a different standpoint showing everybody has a perspective, and everybody does have a perspective
You had to get authorization from the Israeli municipalities to film in Israel, and from the Palestinian authority to film in Palestine. Did you have to talk to them about the subject matter of your film? How in depth did you have to go?
It was a pretty simple process. That was the easy part, actually. Nobody had asked to review the script, nobody had asked us to abide by this or that, we just applied for the permit and we got it, we drove to the Palestinian authorities and I sat down with the mayor, we chatted and he asked us to try not to portray Nablus in a negative light, because they're trying to encourage filmmakers to come and film there, and I said that's not the situation at all, we want to film in Nablus for the sake of authenticity.
I know that you went up to Hezbollah’s offices. Casually. They wanted to talk to you about the nature of your film and about the fact that you're filming in Israel. What was that encounter like?
I asked for a meeting with one of their officials, actually. I was simply wondering what the party's official stance was on the fact that the film was being shot by a Lebanese director in Israel with Israeli actors. Their reaction was, you know, they voiced their opinion. They cannot support the film because I have filmed—according to them on the land of a direct enemy—I told them that it's just a film, and for authenticity's sake I have to shoot in Israel and I also have to shoot with Israeli actors, because I'm not going to hire Egyptian actors to play Israeli roles. It had to be shot in Hebrew. He just says, “Look we understand your process, but we cannot voice our support but we're going to go after you, obviously, you have the right to do whatever you want.” So the meeting was diplomatic and I just wanted to find out what are they going to do when the film was released, but now the film was banned in the Arab world. So that issue is not going to come up any more.
I saw that. The only unanimous decision the Arab league has taken and it's on a movie.
[laughs] It’s a shame.
Did you have to hand in a script to the Lebanese authorities before shooting in Lebanon?
I did not. Because I did not film in Lebanon at all. After the film was over, we submitted it to the Raqabah, the Censorship Bureau of General Security, and they approved it. They said they didn't see this film as being anti-Palestinian, they gave us the permit to shoot, and I was very, very happily surprised. It was after that, when a committee in Lebanon called the Israel Boycott Committee, mounted a campaign against the film that started the whole thing. They lobbied the Arab league and the Lebanese government to pull back their decision so the Lebanese government abided and that’s how it is.
There is such little coverage on the Arab response. Most of the time “Arab art” is marketed as this existential cultural product that’s made to change the perception of the Middle East. In reality, we’re just making art, and couldn’t care less about “perception.”
Look, you know, you have interesting opinions coming out of the Arab world trying to change things. But when it comes to Israel, most of the time, among the press or even amongst the Arab liberal branch, they have the tendency to be very black and white. Even when I showed the slightest of the Israeli perspective, then there was too much. So, we have a long way to go. I mean, the Israelis are constantly making films that are very critical of their establishment, they’re are coming up with incredibly open films whereas the Arabs don't want to see it that way, they're stuck on their old, you know old—
Yeah, mentality. What they don't understand is that this film is probably going to be pirated and the people in the Arab world are going to see it either way, on their computers or TV, whether pirated or whatever.
Do you think the ban will be lifted, after people watch the film and voice their opinion about it?
No. I don't think the ban will be lifted. The subject of Israel is such a red line in the Arab world. But I still think people will end up seeing it. To tell you the truth, I even considered myself pirating the movie and sending it to Lebanon so everybody can see it and I called a friend of mine and I said would you consider pirating the film? He said look, I can sell you 100 copies for $100 but you won't see any profit because I can't guarantee you that pirated copy that I’ll be selling won't be replicated to 10,000 copies. But if you want me to do it just to screw the Lebanese government then I'd be more than happy to. So finally I told him look we're not going to pirate anything, let them do it, it's going to happen. You know? It really says a lot when a filmmaker would want to pirate his own film
Was their marriage fraud? Or were his wife’s feelings for him?
No, they were totally real. She loved him tremendously but she was also an ambiguous person; she was several things. We’re not sending one message, there's no one particular message, we're saying that she had her needs and he didn't see her needs. She had the conflict; her husband didn't see the conflict. He was very successful and he was well integrated. He had good intentions, good will; he wasn’t mysterious, or vicious, or manipulative. He was just blinded by where he was; he was so adamant in creating this perfect life in a very imperfect world.
In the book that the movie is based on, Siham—his wife—is Muslim, but you made her Christian in the movie, why?
That was actually an incident. I was scouting in Nablus and we found a church in the middle of Nablus, a very Muslim town. So I got this idea and I was like why don't we make her Christian? Which is unexpected and unpredictable. So we went back and changed her role and made her Christian. We’re trying to emphasize that the Palestinian Israeli struggle is not really a religious one like in Iraq or Syria, the issue is about nationhood, it's about two people struggling for a homeland, it's about two people claiming they own this homeland. Exclusively. It's not about being Muslim or Christian, and there are Christians in the Arab world and they are prominent and not everybody talks about them.
Near the end of the film, he goes to Nablus, where he feels alienated and he goes back to Israel where he is—or was—integrated and he’s being straddled by two extremes, each urging him to inch one step closer. It’s like his attempt to reach a balance is impossible.
Sometimes, like most of us, who come from the Arab world and live abroad, we always wonder where we belong, where we fit better. When I go to the Arab world, I feel I belong, but I don't fit in. Now I live in America, between America and Paris, where I feel I fit but I don't belong, it's a never-ending quest for me. I'm constantly juggling with these ideas. Where would I want to be buried or throw my anchor and settle down, and I never have the answers and Amin Ja'afari is the same way, you know. He's caught between one world and the other.
I’m sure that would resonate with a lot of Arabs in Diaspora.
It's my case. I'm all about the person rather than the collective.
More about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: