Israeli filmmakers have not hesitated to explore their country’s misadventures in Lebanon, Ari Folman’s animated semi-documentary “Waltz With Bashir” being the most distinguished example. Arab filmmakers generally haven’t had the same freedom to explore what Israel means for their people.
Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri has smashed a major taboo by filming the first half of “The Attack” in Tel Aviv. (The second half takes place in the West Bank.) In fact, he actually broke a 1955 law banning cooperation with Israel, although prosecution is unlikely –– despite harsh criticism from Hezbollah and even conservative elements in the Lebanese film industry, who blocked the film from being Lebanon’s contender for the Academy Awards on the grounds that it’s “too Israeli.”
“The Attack” is concerned with relations between Arabs and Israeli Jews. In that, there’s nothing new about it. It’s also about the differences between Arabs from Tel Aviv and Arabs from the West Bank, and it depicts relations between them as only a bit less tortured than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all the sectarian strife in Iraq and Syria, perhaps Westerners are finally realizing that the Arab world is not a monolith.
“The Attack” is one of the few films that drive this point home. This achievement may stem from the fact that its director is an outsider to both Israel and Palestine, which gives him a dash of critical distance.
Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman) is an Israeli-born Palestinian surgeon. At the start of “The Attack,” he receives a prize for his excellent work. Called to speak, he notes he’s the first Arab ever to get such an honor and jokes that there’s something Jewish about every Arab and Arab in every Jew. The ugliness that his job sometimes forces him to confront is brought to the surface when a suicide bombing in a restaurant leaves 19 people dead. To make matters worse, the bomber appears to be his wife, who had no overt history of extremism. Arrested, he’s treated horribly by Israeli cops, while he refuses to believe his wife could be guilty. Freed after a few days, he travels to the West Bank to visit relatives and a mysterious sheik who apparently inspired her radicalization.
In terms of style, Michael Mann’s “The Insider” is the film “The Attack” most reminds me of. Doueiri shares Mann’s tendency to fill the widescreen frame with giant close-ups of heads. Paradoxically, Doueiri often uses the Cinemascope frame to simply show two people talking, yet the size of the frame lends these images an epic grandeur. The film’s lighting is often rather dim. The look of the film’s two halves is distinct. Tel Aviv resembles a modern Western city, complete with billboards for “The Voice.” Nablus looks like a dingy slum, and Doueiri’s depiction of it hews closer to neo-realism.
“The Attack” was adapted from a 2005 novel by Algerian author Yasmina Khadra. Officially, it’s a Lebanese-French-Qatari-Belgian production. Cross-national productions like this can often lead to watered-down sensibilities, but Doueiri has a sharp eye for subtle prejudice and everyday life as a minority. On the surface, Amin’s life is a success story. He has plenty of Jewish friends. However, on the operating table, a man who appears to be in danger of bleeding to death refuses his help, obviously because Amin’s an Arab. In jail, it doesn’t take long for the Israeli cops’ suspicions to come out.
“The Attack” shows the flaws of the “model minority” concept. Without stating it explicitly, it suggests Amin has to be a brilliant surgeon in order to have a comfortable life at all. If thing had gone differently, he could have been living on the West Bank and plotting violence. Obviously, suicide bombing isn’t a problem in the US, but it would be easy to transpose the basic story here and make Amin a successful African-American with a relative who commits a horrible crime, bringing out the same prejudices (if not the same nationalist yearnings.)
I haven’t read Khadra’s novel, but the film’s narrative reminds me of J.G. Ballard’s “Cocaine Nights,” in which a man investigates a seemingly inexplicable crime committed by his brother. In his last few novels, Ballard used the tropes of the mystery genre to create hyper-capitalist dystopias. The dystopia “The Attack” takes us to is genuine, and Doueiri isn’t inventing anything when he shows Palestinians raging against the occupation of their land and arguing it justifies violence. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is that it manages to integrate a love story, played out in flashbacks, with real politics. In the end, it suggests that intimacy may be more elusive than a Middle East peace plan.
THE ATTACK | Directed by Ziad Doueiri | Cohen Media Group | In Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles | Opens Jun. 21 | Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St.; angelikafi