This week the Mediascape Blog is running a series of posts by Laura Swanbeck on the 2013 ColCoa Film Festival.
Contentious to its core, The Attack, the latest film from Ziad Doueiri (West of Beirut), centers on Amin Jaafari (Ali Sulman), a well-respected Palestinian doctor living in Tel Aviv. Based on the best-selling novel by Yasmina Khadra (the pen name of Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul), the film follows Amin as he uncovers a secret surrounding his wife, Siham (Reymond Amsalem), in the aftermath of a suicide bombing that killed 17 people. In desperate search of answers, Amin travels to Palestine in hopes of shedding light on his marriage and coming to terms with Siham’s involvement in the bombing, but ultimately ends up negotiating his own identity and facing his complacency as both a husband and a physician. While Amin leads a peaceful, non-confrontational life in Israel, he can no longer ignore the ubiquitous anguish and simmering resentment once he returns to his homeland.
Why is this film, which premiered at Telluride last fall, raising so much suspicion and indignation worldwide? Ironically, it’s due not to fundamentalist proclivities, but for its endeavor at neutrality. Seeking to show both Israeli and Palestinian sides of the conflict, Doueiri has ignited a firestorm, with the Arab League asking all 22 nation-states to boycott the film. In light of the political controversy, the film’s financial backers in Qatar and Egypt have also insisted that their names be removed from the final credits.
Additionally, Doueiri’s home country of Lebanon refuses to distribute the film and failed to nominate it for an Academy Award (despite the critical acclaim it has garnered on the festival circuit) because of its Israeli ties. Moreover, by shooting in Israel and using Israeli talent, Doueiri violated a 1955 Lebanese law and could be indicted on charges of treason, potentially facing three years of hard labor if convicted.
The director summed up the film’s reception best, remarking that the overall consensus was that the “film was too Palestinian for an American audience and too Israeli for a European audience.” Nevertheless, he’s continued to appeal Lebanon’s decision to block a theatrical exhibition, stressing the importance that the film be shown throughout the Middle East. The film has even received Moulessehoul’s blessing, despite Doueiri departing from the novel’s original ending.
Adapting The Attack for the screen has clearly been a labor of love for Doueiri, a self-professed fan of its author. This one-time collaborator of Quentin Tarantino—Doueiri served as a camera operator on films such as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown—conducted extensive research and even went so far as to meet with Hezbollah leaders, who cryptically gave him their word that they would not interfere with the project.
Overall, the film is both a taut thriller and a reflective meditation on the secrets we hide from even our closest friends and family. Sulman’s performance is at once understated and evocative as he progresses through various stages of grief, from denial to disbelief. In particular, the scene in which Amin is hauled into the hospital in the middle of the night to identify his wife’s barely distinguishable body captures the devastation of a man whose entire world has been turned upside down. Although his wife is shown almost entirely through flashback that’s often eclipsed with silence, this seemingly limited depiction works from Amin’s perspective in terms of his struggle to fully grasp her motivations and ultimate identity.
The more fully-realized female character comes in the form of Kim (Evgenia Dodena), Amin’s friend and colleague at the hospital who takes him in after news of his wife spreads. While their friendship is compassionate, with slight undertones of an unrequited love on her end, it is ultimately tested once Amin returns from Palestine. When he alludes to having made further discoveries about the perpetrators of the suicide bombing, Kim at once feels betrayed and alienated, bristling as both a doctor and an Israeli at her friend’s unwillingness to reveal his findings to local authorities.
With the first day of press screenings coinciding with the Boston Marathon bombings, Doueiri’s film resonated even more strongly. While we like to think of fundamentalism as a foreign concept, such a tragedy is a reminder that terrorism isn’t limited to any region or religion. The Attack does not condone or condemn Palestine or Israel in a fractious conflict that has lasted for over half a century; rather, it simply bears witness, and for that it is truly revolutionary.
The Attack won the COLCOA Audience Award, a special prize from the festival’s official critics jury, and the Coming Soon Award, which is presented to a film with an attached U.S. distributor. Cohen Media Group is set to release the film in the U.S. on June 21.
Laura Swanbeck is a staunch cinephile, film festival enthusiast, and Master’s student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. She spent the last few years working in film programming and championing independent filmmakers at the California Film Institute and San Francisco Film Society. Areas of interest include Middle Eastern and European transnational cinema with a specific focus on immigration, exile, and diaspora. Currently she’s enamored with French film after covering the ColCoa Film Festival. She has recurring nightmares about DCP issues, unabashedly loves feminist film theory, and probably would have been Pauline Kael’s arch-nemesis had she been born a few decades earlier.