The Attack/Ziad Doueiri

Amin Jaafari, a highly assimilated Palestinian surgeon living in Tel Aviv, is horrified by a suicide bombing that brings mangled children to his hospital.  His horror skyrockets, however, when he discovers that the suicide bomber was his wife—a  discovery that launches Amin on a painful reconsideration of his own life. Director Talk would like to salute Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri for his honesty in light of the fact that The Attack was recently banned by the Arab League and Doueiri faces prosecution if he returns to his homeland. •Availability: On DVD and Blu-ray, Cohen Media Group, starting Nov. 12.  Also available on Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, and retailers. Thanks to Aimee Morris and Sophie Gluck, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.


DT: Let’s begin by talking about secrecy and isolation. Amin, a Palestinian Israel, was isolated from his surroundings and the people around him, while his wife obviously had her own secret.  The Shin Bet conducts secret surveillance, while Nablus is isolated from Tel Aviv. Do you think that secrecy and isolation go hand in hand in maintaining  the conflict?


ZD: I don’t know if they do in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but between Amin and his wife we wanted to show it like this.  The whole film was based on this idea that you build a perfect marriage, but do you really know the person you think you know?  We also wanted to show that someone’s perspective on happiness is not necessarily shared by the other person. These are the themes; we didn’t intellectually sit down and say we’re going to deal with this, but instinctually this is how they progressed during the writing of the script. We wanted to get away as much as possible from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Eventually it’s there, but we did not want to make the whole story about Israelis and Palestinians.  We’ve seen that.  You know how many films have been made? A lot. And a lot of the films are a little bit didactic and a little bit about slogans, especially from the Arab filmmaking process, always repeating the bad Israelis and the nice poor Palestinians. I’ve seen that. I didn’t want to get bogged down in this. So when I sat down with Joelle to write, we wanted to take it in a different direction, into more of an emotional reaction, more of a psychological love story.

It’s about this man who absolutely loves this woman but he doesn’t see everything that she needs.  He learns to see it, and then he pays a very big price for it at the end. Those were our motives. But did we really set out to make a message?  No, I don’t think so.


DT: So why set it in  such a maelstrom? Why set it there?


ZD: Because it’s based on a book.


DT: Right, but as a filmmaker, you could write whatever you wanted to.


ZD: But it worked!  I mean, we felt that setting it in Israel and Palestine works as long as we didn’t make the Israel/Palestine issue the central story line. The central story line is a doctor looking to understand his wife. It’s a love story, a complex story. Why not the Middle East?  Plus I am aware of this conflict. I grew up in it, I breathed it.  My mom milked me with it, you understand? So it’s very familiar territory. Plus I’m reading this book and some of the passages express what I feel in the right words, because the book is very ambivalent and I’m very ambivalent too. I was much more militant when I was young. I hated the Jews, I hated the Israelis.  Flat out. For me, a good Jew was a dead Jew.  How could a Jew even have his own narrative? We didn’t cause the Holocaust, so why are you making us pay for it: I grew up all my life believing this. Then suddenly, I go to Israel, I’m meeting these Israeli actors, and they are fantastic. And this whole image of this ultimate enemy becomes demystified. Suddenly I’m facing the enemy and I’m liking him; he’s kind,  he’s caring about the film. He’s professional. I’m speaking very personally right now; I’m not getting into the conflict. For me, this ambivalence that I had has evolved. I have evolved. You give me this film twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to make it. Today, my narrative has changed.  Now I’m saying, Wait a second. It’s true that they occupy the Palestinian land blah blah blah, it’s true blah blah blah, we know that. But they have their point of view. They have their fears, their insecurities. I didn’t meet a single Israeli among the people that I worked with who does not want to end this thing. Disarmed.  Ziad Doueiri has been disarmed by my trip. It doesn’t mean that I don’t see the reality anymore—it’s there. There is an occupation, I’m crossing every day back and forth and see the checkpoint and the assholes at the checkpoint. The biggest assholes. But at the same time, I managed to find Israeli actors and actresses who were so dedicated to this film that they came and told me, Ziad, if you do not have money, pay us whatever you want, we’ll make the movie for you.  What does it tell you? It left me hanging.


DT: It tells me that secrecy and isolation perpetuate the conflict.


ZD: When you don’t know your enemy, you fear him, you hate him. But the minute you have this face-to-face contact . . .  It starts with such a simple thing as “Let’s have a coffee.” Some people are going to accuse me of being banal:  This is a much bigger conflict, don’t reduce it to coffee.  The global issue is beyond me. I can’t resolve it.  The global conflict cannot be resolved  with a coffee. I’m talking now about the personal. I’ve developed an incredible relationship with those Israelis that I hated. Who I hated in principle turned out to be friends. Somebody who tells you, We’ll do anything.  Somebody who doesn’t rip you off. At a certain point I needed to reshoot a scene, and Evgenya, this Israeli actress, said she wanted to reshoot it too.  When I told her we had to fly to Basil to reshoot it, she said, “Don’t worry if you don’t have the money, I just want to do it.” She flew in and she did it for free. She’s a Jew,  an Israeli Jew. Does this make you not question.  Does it?


DT: It doesn’t make me question.  I’m an American Jew, so I don’t question it.


ZD: But imagine how  much I had to go through this transformation, which took years for me to overcome the hatred that I had. I don’t want to give a false impression, and I don’t want to sound politically correct. The hatred that I had was justified at that time. I was a child.  I grew up under the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, Ariel Sharon invading Lebanon in 1982. The Sabra-Shatila massacre, no, no, no, no. What do you expect—an Arab Lebanese kid to come out and say  “I love the Israelis”? No! Fuck the Israelis at that time. It’s normal! You wake up, you’re under the bombs!  F-16’s are bombing, and I’m going to throw them rice and flowers?  It did not work that way. But then time goes by, I travel, I settle down in Los Angeles. I start working with Jews.  I met Jews (gasps, feigning horror) . . . and then your prejudice starts to break apart. And you start seeing that they are like you. They are kind. You break matzah balls with them, you date them. You understand? I’m serious. It’s the truth, this is what happened.


DT: Of course it’s what happened!


ZD: It’s an incredible experience for me. It’s not the film itself, which I’m very happy was made and happy it’s getting what it is. It’s just the experience of having filmed with the worst nightmare. At the beginning, you guys were Darth Vaders. This image of a Darth Vader didn’t come out of nothing. It came out of reality also! Let’s not forget. But I’m talking about the global.  You know that bumper sticker that says “Think Globally and Act Locally”? I thought globally, and I couldn’t resolve it. I acted locally, on an individual  basis, and my relationship with that crew was amazing. I would work with them again . . . I would go back and shoot in Israel even though I might go to jail for it in Lebanon, because they’ve issued my warrant of arrest. But it’s okay! My trip as a filmmaker to this part of the land was an incredible experience. I still think about it now. It broke a lot of prejudices. Which tells me that face-to-face contact just drops the secrecy thing. Not knowing your enemy. The only thing I knew about the enemy when I was a child was the war and the battles and everything. And now I have to say, “Roll, camera, action,” and I have to come close and say, “We need makeup here,” and the Israelis are running around doing everything. It’s not battles anymore. When we fought on the set, we would get into arguments that had nothing to do with the political. It was healthy. I was fighting and arguing and screaming at the associate producer or the actors, and everything for filmmaking reasons, not for political reasons. Which is healthy, because people fight on set. But we weren’t fighting because of politics. We were fighting because of craftsmanship. This whole process put me in a different mode, which I’m still trying to absorb. I’m still trying to analyze where I’ve been without being overly analytical.  You know, I’m being read for this opinion I’m sharing on the media.  In Toronto I said it, and in Telluride I said it, and in Qatar I said it. I’m talking about my experience. In every festival or interview, I’m talking about my experience with the Israelis and I’m being scrutinized for it because they’re saying, Ziad has reached over to the enemy. I’m in cahoots with you right now. This is what they’re saying. Well, it’s not true.  All I’m talking about is my experience. It’s true, it’s valid!


DT: Why is Lebanon so negative about it when Qatar and Egypt supported the film?


ZD: Because the Lebanese have a particular relationship to the Palestinian cause. Lebanon has half a million Palestinians as refugees, and Lebanon paid a very, very big price for the struggle. We still keep on bombarding. I mean, Lebanon is the country that fought the Israelis the most. Don’t forget that. Egypt signed for peace in ’79, Jordan in ’93, Qatar is not in a state of war but they have a business relationship with the Israelis. But Lebanon is still  in a state of war. Syria is in a state of war, but Syria and Israel have not thrown one single bullet since the armistice in 1973 after the Yom Kippur War. Lebanon is the only country that’s still in a state of war, fighting real battles. Plus, the mentality in the Lebanese is so pro-Palestinian, what else do you expect? The Lebanese are not going to be pro-Israelis. Lebanon has a lot more taboo than the Palestinians!  A lot of the Palestinians I meet deal with the Israelis on a daily basis. They go, they shop, they exchange, they talk, they  sit down around the table. The Lebanese don’t  have that. We are more royalist than the king. The Lebanese have a lot of heavy baggage vis-a-vis the Israelis. For good reasons also, and I never forget that. The Lebanese are not born out of their mothers’ wombs just burning the Israeli flag for nothing. Some of the Lebanese reaction is stupid, but a lot of it is justified also.  Lebanon was destroyed a lot by the Israelis over the years. Lebanon was also more destroyed by the Syrian occupation, though nobody wants to talk about that. The Syrians fucked with us a million times more than the Israelis! A million  times, much more subversive. Because the Israelis occupied land. The Syrians occupied land, the court system, the legal system, the sociological system. They penetrated every aspect of life. Plus the Syrian does not declare himself as an enemy. The Israeli says, “You’re my enemy, I’m going to kill you.” The Israeli says this out loud. There’s no ambivalence to it. The Syrian says, “We are brothers, we are the same people.”  But you never hear the Lebanese protesting about the Syrian occupation. I am the perfect Israeli candidate today, I think Netanyahu would  listen to Ziad, and say, “Oh! You’re the perfect candidate.”


DT: Let’s talk about the sequence where Amin is being driven home from the hospital after being interrogated by the police. There’s a sequence of shots of buildings.  One shot  just has a fragment of a round building in the lower right-hand corner, giving this incredible  feeling of isolation.  What was your intention as a filmmaker? That was a phenomenally moving sequence.


ZD: My approach was to show that suddenly he is not part of the city, the way he was so integrated when he gave the thank-you speech to the Israelis at the beginning of the film. Now he is aware that the building are looking at him too. Suddenly there is a rupture. That’s why he’s looking and he sees the building that you mention, the stoplight, a woman drinking coffee. Suddenly those people that he thought were part of the same society—he’s a citizen of Israel—but suddenly, the bombing is the prelude to everything that follows in the film. He’s started to think,  “Am I really now part of this city? Proud to be a Tel Avivian? Or now, the buildings are looking at me. I’m a suspect. And I’m looking at them.” This is the idea that I wanted to evoke.


DT: In Nablus, one of the Palestinians says to Amin, “Anyone can become a terrorist. It can fall on you like a tile or grow inside you like a worm.”

ZD: No, no, that’s in Israel. It’s his Israeli detective friend who tells him this while they’re having a beer on the beach. Amin is sitting with his friend and says, “Tell me, you’ve met a lot of psychopaths. What happened, what happened to those terrorists?”  His Israeli friend answers,  “It can fall on you like a tile, it can grow on you like a worm.” It’s an Israeli interpretation, not Palestinian. A Palestinian would never say it like this. A Palestinian would say, “We became kamikaze because we’re fighting for the cause, because we’re under oppression, because we’re trying to live in dignity.” That’s the Palestinian discourse. The Israeli discourse is it happens to you without knowing why. And both are valid. So ask your question now, but you have to put it in the Israeli context.


DT: I don’t know if I can ask the question. I think it’s fascinating I thought he was talking to a Palestinian.  Okay. You grew up in Beirut during the Civil War. Given your firsthand experience, do you believe that anyone can become a terrorist?


ZD: No, not everyone can become a terrorist.  I would have—but not a suicide bomber—because I was capable of hating so much.  Not just the Israelis; I hated the Christians. I hated. I’m an extremist, even today. I’m not capable, ever, of committing a terrorist attack, but it’s easy to become an extremist. It really is easy to become an extremist, and people in the West do not understand that. A big part of that extremism is the way you were raised.  I lived it. I swear to you, it is so difficult. Some people say there is no excuse for terrorism, and I believe there is no excuse for terrorism. And in the film I’m not giving an excuse for terrorism, I’m just saying it does not take much for a human being to become very extremist.  To become very radicalized. In my experience, when you feel hopeless and somebody comes to you and offers you a chance for salvation, you’re probably going to adopt it. I’m glad that I was raised in a fantastic family, and I’m glad I was raised in a very liberal family.


DT: And intellectual.


ZD: Very left wing, liberal. My parents are very, very left wing.  Antireligious.  Life—this is not philosophical, I swear it’s not philosophical even though it sounds it—life is an insecure thing. We go through breakups. Some of the breakups devastate us. And when you’re so devastated, sometimes it doesn’t take more than that to trip and start making the wrong decisions and becoming a big extremist. I’m talking about something as simple and naïve as  a breakup, how much it can affect you. You become suicidal.  Have you ever been suicidal? I have been suicidal. And then you survive it because there is the will to live because you have parents who love you, or whatever. But we all go through very, very dark moments, and I went through it. When you take a population and you tell the population, be it Palestinian, be it Israeli, be it whatever  you want: when you say, you can’t cross, you can’t have a future, you have to live in misery, you have to live in poverty. You’ve lost your virginity—in an Arab culture that’s a huge taboo. Whatever you take, you add layer after layer after layer. Misery, poverty, no perspective. Feeling shame, feeling embarrassed. You could become a suicide bomber.


DT: But you know, there’s the nonviolent movement in Bil’in, there are these Palestinians—and I think this is brilliant—adopting the Jewish settlers’ tactics of building huts on hilltops. I mean, do you think that nonviolent resistance—


ZD:Does not work.


DT: It’s worked in other parts of the world. It worked in East Timor—


ZD: Exactly, in India, in South Africa. Not in the same way. I’ll give you an answer right away: In my opinion, it’s religion. The Middle East is very religious. Think about it.  Not like South Africa. The Middle East is where the three monotheistic religions came from, and that’s very, very rare. In Islam you can do this kind of thing. You can do a jihad and kill yourself. In Christianity, you are not allowed to do it. Christianity goes against that. In Islam, religion plays a big role in shaping their minds.  Why don’t you have suicide bombers in other countries? I mean, there are, but very few.  Why is it so systematic in the Muslim world? Because in a way, the Qur’an, in a convoluted way, lets you do it. It’s divine intervention, not a man; it’s not Karl Marx who tells you, Go do it. Cause Karl Marx is a human being; he’s a homo sapien. It’s divine. How can you contest divine call for jihad? That’s why it’s so fucked up, you understand. Did I give you your answer?


DT: Yes, but I feel like you’re putting yourself  in danger with it.


ZD:Why? Why am I putting myself in danger? Going to Lebanon?  You think? Why?


DT: You’re saying some very radical things.


ZD: I am not radical. I am not radical at all. I’m talking about why it’s so easy for those people to commit suicide bombings. I give you a list: because they feel oppressed, they might feel no hope for the future, they might feel there’s no perspective, they’re sexually frustrated. Plus you add the religious aspect to it, you should do the jihad. You add all these things, you’re putting more chemistry for this to work.  To have a nice cocktail, you’ve got to have several elements to become a suicide bomber. Islam is the last cherry on the pie inside this cocktail. It’s giving it a divine okay to do it. This is why the discourse should change within the Muslims and they should stop.  Assholes should stop carrying on in the street, and say “Islam should condemn this; you should not be able to do this. It’s against God’s will.” Some people are trying to say it, but the Qur’an is so convoluted—it’s written in a way where you don’t know whether it encourages jihad or not. But again we’re getting into a very philosophical conversation that I don’t want to have. We should talk about simpler things in life. About a nice bagel.


DT: I’m sorry, my last question is pretty philosophical. In an interview with Elliott Kotech at TIFF, you said that it’s naïve to say “Let’s extend hands and say, ‘Peace.’” Don’t you think it’s a moral imperative to do so?


ZD: To extend hands?  I think it’s naïve because it cannot be solved that way. It happens that for me, I reconciled with Israelis on a film set. But that’s the Ziad way. I’m not representative of my whole community. To be able to all of us sit down and quickly cure things with a handshake, it’s naïve. I wish it would work. But again, I don’t know what works. Do you believe it would work with just shaking hands after all these bloody years? I don’t know, maybe it works.


DT: I think it’s the only thing that would work. If  everyone just says, “I can’t take it anymore. Let’s just have peace.”


ZD: Okay, but why is nobody saying it? Why are only some people saying it? A very small minority in Israel is calling for it, and an even smaller minority in the Arab world is saying it. Why are the rest not saying it?  I mean, I have my ways of solving the thing, but my ways are so different.


DT: Tell me.


ZD: Make them fornicate with each other.   All of them.


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