Lebanese Film Banned: An Attack on ‘The Attack’
In the claustrophobic confines of a hospital morgue, a young doctor is about to identify a body – or what seems like a part of a body – obscured under a bloodied sheet.
As the audio track descends to a gut-sucking silence, the camera stares unflinchingly as the badly injured remains of a young woman are revealed. The taut silence stretches to almost bursting point as the shaken doctor turns to walk away - before he collapses.
Outside the morgue, Tel Aviv is waking to an ordinary day. But it’s a day like no other in the life of Dr. Amin Jaafari - the main character in the award-winning film, The Attack. A successful Israeli Arab doctor, Jaafari – played by the masterful Ali Suliman - has just learned that his wife has been killed in a suicide bombing.
Soon, very soon, Dr. Jaafari will have to face another disconcerting truth. His late wife - the woman he loved, but apparently did not know – is not just the victim of an attack, she’s the perpetrator – the suicide bomber who detonated an explosives-packed belt at a popular Tel Aviv restaurant, killing 17 people, including 11 children.
The film, an adaptation of the Yasmina Khadra novel, The Attack, is directed by Lebanese film-maker Ziad Doueiri and is set to be released in France later this month and in the US in June.
I saw the movie at a Paris press screening the way it was meant to be viewed – in a darkened theatre, projected on a big screen, with the cinematography playing havoc with my emotions as the narrative unravelled from the corridors of a Tel Aviv hospital, to the Old City streets of Nablus, and the ruins of the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank.
But not everyone in the Arab world will be as fortunate – and certainly not in Doueiri’s own Lebanon.
Lebanese authorities have banned cinemas from screening The Attack after it emerged that parts of the film were shot in Tel Aviv and the cast included Israeli actors.
‘The bastard isn’t the man who doesn’t know his father…’
Since the founding of Israel in 1948, the Arab League has maintained a Boycott Office tasked with enforcing a boycott of Israeli companies and goods. The office was based in Damascus before it was moved to Cairo and continues to exist despite its ambiguously framed and enforced boycott calls.
While a number of the 22 Arab League member states have peace treaties with Israel, other countries circumvent the different boycott levels by circumventing the rules and trading goods via third-party countries such as Cyprus.
In the case of the adaptation of the Khadra novel, the ban on The Attack is particularly baffling since the story is set in Israel and the main characters are Israeli Arabs.
The irony of course is that Doueiri’s latest film is a nuanced exploration of identity among Israeli Arabs. In one of the film’s more memorable moments, for instance, as the secular, assimilated Dr. Jaafari is tearing down “martyrdom” posters of his late wife in the West Bank, a voiceover taunts him, “The bastard isn’t the man who doesn’t know his father. It’s the one who doesn’t know his roots.”
Reacting to the ban, Doueiri – who co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Joelle Touma – said he was “shocked and furious”.
“Parts of the film are based in Israel. I always shoot on location as far as possible,” said Doueiri in a Skype interview from Los Angeles. “I’m not a studio kind of guy, I like to be in the real place. What was I supposed to do? Shoot in Montreal?”
It was early Sunday in Los Angeles, a city the award-winning Lebanese film-maker knows very well after having spent several years working as Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino’s assistant cameraman.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I too know Doueiri very well. He’s a dear friend and I consider his 1998 autobiographical debut, West Beirut, one of my favourite films ever - although he gets embarrassed when I say so and tries to cut me short with a “Shut-up, Jacinto.”
Threats and no spot at the Oscars
Of course it doesn’t shut me up and I know nothing can shut up Doueiri either.
But they’re certainly trying and what’s particularly troubling is the kind of folks heaping invective and abuse this time around.
“What’s shocking is it’s not the Islamists who are attacking the film, it’s the left-wing liberals,” noted Doueiri.
As often happens in this social media age, most of the critics have not seen the film – “I have not seen any of his films and won't see any of his films,” noted one critic. But that has not stopped them from airing their opinions – and worse.
“I’m receiving threats on Facebook, telling me to be careful when I return to Lebanon,” noted Doueiri. “I don’t want to be paranoid but of course I take it seriously. I’m very concerned.”
But on this Sunday, I find Doueiri in fine fighting form. “I’m furious,” he admits. “All I wanted to do was to make the best film possible. I didn’t set out to create a debate – if the film does that, it’s fine. I thought it was a great story. The thing is, it’s very easy for artists to be attacked. We’re so transparent – we tell our story, or we sing our song, or we show our art. We’re the most vulnerable.”
As a Lebanese film-maker, Doueiri’s career is particularly vulnerable to the whims of officialdom.
For a moment last year, things appeared to be going in his favour. The Attack was initially granted a projection permit by the Lebanese authorities last year and a copy of the certificate was proudly posted on Facebook.
As the awards on the festival circuit kept rolling in, for a while it looked like the film might even be entered as Lebanon’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars.
But amid mounting criticism over the Academy’s criteria requirements for its Foreign Language films, The Attack was bypassed by the Lebanese authorities.
As for the Lebanese projection screening certificate, it was revoked by Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel earlier this year following a call from the Israel Boycott Office of the Arab League in Cairo demanding that the Arab world and Lebanon ban the film.
“It wears me down and sometimes it makes me not want to go back to that part of the world,” sighed Doueiri. “But I know that I’ll be back. I was born there. I grew up there. It’s who I am.”