‘The Attack’ shows despair, humanity on both sides of terror

In his film “The Attack,” Ziad Doueiri tried to humanize every character, from Tel Aviv penthouse dwellers to Palestinian terrorists. Those good intentions triggered a fierce reaction in the Arab world, which, according to the Lebanese-born writer-director, could not accept a movie that failed to demonize Jews.

The taut drama, which tells the story of a prominent Israeli Arab doctor who learns his wife carried out a suicide bombing, screens July 30 and Aug. 4 at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It has been named the festival’s centerpiece film.

No surprise, given the buzz it has generated. Though banned by the 22 member-nations of the Arab League, “The Attack” was well received at its Jerusalem premiere this month, even though it depicts terrorists in a sympathetic light.

Director Ziad Doueiri

Doueiri chose not to attend the Jerusalem screening. Rubbing shoulders with Israeli glitterati at such a high-visibility event could have meant the loss of his Lebanese citizenship, he said, something he was not prepared to risk.

But befriending Israelis while making “The Attack,” which was filmed in Tel Aviv and the West Bank, changed the 50-year-old filmmaker.

“I was curious to understand the Israeli perspective,” Doueiri told j. in a phone interview from his Paris home. “Israel and Lebanon have had many battles. But I have always been curious to understand this nation only a few miles from where I live, yet so far away.”

He got a chance to find out.

Before adapting Yasmina Khadra’s best-selling novel, Doueiri first had to understand Israelis. He spent nine months in Tel Aviv, getting to know a people he once considered the enemy.

“When you come face to face, something gets demystified,” he said. “Suddenly the enemy is not in an F-16 or tank; he’s doing location scouting with you. It is very interesting when you sit down and eat with your enemy. I developed incredible friendships.”

He found similarly friendly faces in the West Bank city of Nablus, where the Palestinian Authority welcomed even the Jewish Israeli members of his crew.

In the film, grief-stricken Amin Jaafari (played by Palestinian actor Ali Suliman) wants to understand how his wife-turned-suicide-bomber could have murdered women and children.

Jaafari ventures into Nablus and the secretive world of Palestinian terror cells. Though his fellow Arabs suspect his motives, Jaafari eventually finds answers: His wife spurned her comfortable Tel Aviv life, choosing instead to strike a blow for Palestine.

While Arabs condemned Doueiri for going too easy on Israelis, supporters of Israel may question a sequence in the film that references the West Bank city of Jenin and, by inference, the alleged Israel Defense Forces massacre of civilians that supposedly happened in 2002.

An Israeli incursion, triggered by a wave of suicide bombings, indeed took place at that time to eliminate terror cells in the Jenin refugee camp. According to the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, no massacre happened. Some 22 civilians died, along with 23 Israeli soldiers and 30 terrorists.

Doueiri asserts that the film’s Palestinian characters believed the massacre took place, and that’s what motivated them. He called the sequence “the most contested scene in the movie because the Arabs say I didn’t show enough destruction. I said, ‘This is not the issue. It’s not about Jenin.’ ”

Instead, the filmmaker said, the movie is “about a man wanting to understand the truth about his wife. Do you really know the person you love? Creating ambivalence about terrorism was not an easy thing to do. Ethically there is no justification for terrorism.”

“The Attack” is Doueiri’s third feature and the second set in the Middle East. His 1998 debut, “West Beirut,” took him back to his homeland.

He could have chosen to pursue fame in Hollywood, where he moved in the late 1980s to work as a camera operator. He worked in television, later becoming Quentin Tarantino’s cameraman.

He learned a lot from the Oscar-winning director. “He’s one of a kind,” Doueiri said, “one of the most eclectic and eccentric people I know. He’s a compulsive guy and his characters are compulsive. When I think about my experiences with him, this is the apogee of the filmmaking process.”

Doueiri loved L.A., but the stories he wanted to tell took him back to the Middle East.

He is still a Lebanese Arab and staunchly opposes the Israeli presence in the West Bank. So, he noted, do many Israelis.

“Most [Israelis] I worked with were so generous with their time and shared my values. How can that change you? A lot of the colleagues I worked with want [the occupation] to end. These are my brothers. Now I have a lot of hope.”

“The Attack,” 6:15 p.m. July 30 at the Castro in S.F., 6:40 p.m. Aug. 4 at the California in Berkeley. In Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles. The film’s director and star will appear at the Castro screening. (Unrated, 102 minutes)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.