A suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv café is the catalyst for the plot of The Attack, a new film by Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri. The deadly attack upends the life of Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), a well-respected Israeli-Palestinian surgeon who until then has led a fully assimilated life in the Israeli capital. Evidence leads the police to conclude that the person responsible for the violent act is Amin’s wife, Sihem (Reymonde Amsellem), who also perished in the explosion. The movie is based on a novel by Yasmina Khadra, a pen name for the Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul. Doueiri, whose previous movies are West Beirut (1998) and Lila Says (2004), spoke with us about his current film, which has recently sparked controversy in the Middle East.
How did you get involved with The Attack?
My agent called me in 2006 and told me there was this book. I was in Beirut at the time, so I asked her to tell me what the story was about. Very quickly, I turned it down. I said, “It’s too heavy for me. I’m kind of sick of the Middle East and I don’t want to deal with the issue right now.” She asked me to just take a look and she FedExed me the book. I sat down in a very run-down coffee shop by the beach in Beirut and read it. I was absolutely mesmerized. It’s a complex book and I started asking myself how we could adapt it. I said I was very interested and my agent asked me to come to New York and meet the studio executives. We signed very quickly on it and then I went back to Beirut and started writing—with my co-scriptwriter Joëlle Touma. Then about 15 days into the writing, the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel started. And then I started having a lot of doubts. It was a very serious war. I thought, “Why would I want to do this project? Who’s going to watch a work of fiction when they have seen it live on CNN?” Every network in the world came in and covered the whole war 24 hours a day. But then after 33 days the war was over, so I said we have got to go back to work.
What was it about the book that grabbed you?
The love story. It’s about a man looking for his wife, trying to understand her. You think you understand the person you love and you build an idea of happiness, but that doesn’t mean it matches your partner’s idea of happiness. This is what’s so intriguing. I loved that Yasmina Khadra gives us both sides in the book. And on top of that, I love the investigative part; it’s a police thriller. That comes from the novelist’s own background. He was in the special forces in the Algerian army. I think that’s why the investigative scenes in many of his books are very powerful.
Can you explain the change from the book where Sihem, the wife, is a Christian in the movie?
The reason is actually purely accidental. The script was written similar to the book; she was Muslim and buried in a Muslim cemetery. What happened was that I was doing scouting in Nablus, which is a very, very Muslim, conservative town; there are tons of mosques everywhere. It just happened that around midnight I was walking with the location manager and I stumbled upon a very small church buried between the mosques. I wasn’t expecting to find a church so we rang the bell, the concierge came down and we said, “Do you mind if we visit the church?” He said, “It’s midnight.” We said, “Please let us see it.” And it was this 11th or 12th century Orthodox Christian church. I was just blown away. So then I thought, “What if we make her Christian?” I had to think if it would work in the movie. I discussed it with my co-screenwriter, and she asked me why. I said, “Because it’s unpredictable.” Everybody thinks that everything that happens in the Middle East is because of crazy Muslims. No one talks about the fact that the Christians are also part of the struggle.
The ending of the movie is also changed. It is less bleak than the book…
Look, I’ll be straight here: If you adapt a book scene by scene into a movie, you fuck it up. Reading a book is different from watching a movie. With a book you have more freedom to float; the reader can pause and think about what they just read. In a film you have an hour and half or two hours and it has to flow. So you have modify, get rid of some of the great stuff. This is a normal process of adapting a book. In fact, the author, the first time we showed him the film, he was pretty upset because we changed his ending. It took him about three, four screenings to actually get an understanding.
Whose side would you take: Amin’s or Sihem’s?
The film doesn’t make a black-and-white judgment. We understand Amin as a doctor who’s taken the Hippocratic oath to save lives. His wife does exactly the opposite. Morally he’s totally against her but still loves her. We wanted the love story to take over. Amin pays the price of his idealism. If you’re above the conflict it’s going to catch up with you. The conflict is stronger than you. If you think that you can live in this bubble and isolate yourself from what’s going around, it will eventually come back to you. This is the idea that we’re using, which is slightly different from the book, because in the book he dies in Palestine. The book takes a little more the side of the Palestinians. In my film it’s much more complex. Amin is rejected in both places. I feel that in my own personal life too.
Making this film, particularly shooting Israel has had serious repercussions. The Arab League has called for a boycott of the film in all 22 member nations. Were you expecting this kind of fall out?
I thought about it and I knew I would get some shit for it, but I went ahead and did it anyway. I was concerned about the law a lot more than how people were going to react. When I hired a lawyer a couple of months ago, he said that legally I’m losing the case. There are no loopholes in this harsh 1955 Lebanese law which says you cannot go to Israel and you cannot be in contact with an Israeli citizen anywhere in the world. I’m an American citizen also, but I’m still a Lebanese citizen when I go back. The lawyer said there’s no precedent for the case—no grayish area. The only way you can win is if public opinion supports you. But I don’t have that either because I’m also breaking psychological taboos.
I was very upset when they banned the movie because I care about the Lebanese a lot. I have lived half of my life outside, between France and the United States, but I still care about this small country. I think they’ve never seen a movie where a filmmaker goes to Israel. It’s already emotionally charged. It excites me to be able to sit with the public and ask them to see something they’ve never seen before. It’s a challenge. And I think their reaction could’ve been very positive and stormy at the same time, but the government said no. But I don’t want to be known as a politically involved filmmaker and I don’t want to be shouldering causes. This film is ultimately a love story.