Conversation with Ziad Doueiri, writer/director of The Attack, with film critic Jean Oppenheimer


The Attack opens on June 28, 2013.  It is a rich psychological study of one man’s loss of delicate political and social equilibrium, set against the backdrop of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Film critic Jean Oppenheimer talks about the film with Lebanese writer/director Ziad Doueiri. He explains how he went into the project with one perspective, and came out with another. The film is banned in Arab countries and will be shown in Israel in July.


Writers Bloc:  In a previous conversation you told me that when you were growing up in Beirut you did not feel that the Israelis had a legitimate narrative.  You said that Israeli children grow up feeling the same way about Arabs. Each side considers the other camp the enemy.  If you did not believe the Jews had a legitimate perspective, why did you want to make this film?


Ziad Doueiri:  Because I was also curious about the enemy. You can hate your enemy, you can demonize him, but you are still curious about him. When you are in a conflicting situation you have two choices: you can pull back and completely deny the other side or you can develop some curiosity about it. Why is he behaving like this?  I’m sure there must be a way I can convince him not to act that way.


I was curious about the Lebanese enemy too. I come from a Muslim — non-religious but still Muslim — background. When I was young, the Christians were considered the enemy.  I hated the goddamn Christians. But I was curious. I wanted to know what they were like, what they did, how they lived. This mystery compelled me so much.


I think the changing point for me [in regards to the Israelis] came when I left Beirut in 1983 and arrived in San Diego to attend film school. My teacher showed the class a movie [about the Holocaust] called NIGHT AND FOG, by Alain Resnais, and I found myself feeling empathy for the Jews in the film.  I can admit this now but I couldn’t say it back then. And the fact that I did feel empathy perturbed me because I didn’t think the Jews had any right to feel anything. 


I did not believe that you guys even had a narrative.  What is this suffering you talk about? I don’t buy your suffering.  This is the way I grew up. And here I was, in tears, watching my ultimate enemy suffer.

I did not change camps, but my perception of the enemy changed. I used to think the Israelis were mystically powerful — unbreakable. Instead, I discovered that they are just as fragile as I am, just as insecure as I am.


It’s like the first time I tasted ham. I grew up in a Muslim culture that said that pork is not something to eat. To Muslims, pigs are filthy animals. The first time I ate pork I was 19 years old and living in Los Angeles. And it tasted good!  I felt as though I was committing a sin.  It was the same thing when I saw Night and Fog; I felt as if I was violating some sort of ethics. I thought I was committing treason.


I went to Israel for the first time in 2000, when I was doing location scouts for another film. I spent 15 days in a hostel unable to sleep because I was in enemy territory. The Israelis weren’t threatening me; they actually welcomed me. It was my background that was threatening me. My prejudices were threatening me. Imagine yourself in 1945; you escape Auschwitz and the next day you meet a German guy and marry him. How can you possibly deal with that? It’s a huge taboo.


WB:  You met American Jews when you first came to the US.  How was that?


ZD:  I was very hostile toward them. Whenever I heard a Jew — I knew his name would end with Berg or Stein or Levy — I would be on my toes. There was never any violence between us — nobody ever yelled or screamed — but I was very apprehensive dealing with them. Then you get invited into someone’s home, you break Matzo, and you find out this guy you considered evil is not so evil. He is just as scared as you are. I can say these things now, but I could not say them 15 or even 10 years ago. If you look at the history of what Arabs have done to other Arabs, it is not something to be proud of.  A lot of Palestinians have been killed at Israeli hands, but a lot have also been killed at Arab hands. Look at what Bashir Assad is doing to his own people!


I could not have made The Attack 10 years ago; I was not ready. I don’t want to be idealistic, but I have developed friendships with some of the very people I once demonized. I truly believe that the Israelis went out on a limb to help us with this movie. Several of the Israelis actors told me, ‘if you do not have time to shoot extra days, we will do it for free. If you don’t have money to do reshoots, we will do them for free. We want to keep going.’  Did they score points for that?  Yes, they did.


WB:  How did the Israelis initially feel about working with you? Many Israeli children are raised to fear and hate Arabs.


ZD:  Don’t forget that we work in the film industry and most people in the film industry are liberal. The Israelis I worked with are not representative of the general population, any more than Lebanese filmmakers are representative of my own country. The artistic community tends to be incredibly open-minded, but if you go into [the larger] world of both Arabs and Israelis they do not feel that same way.


WB:  I believe I once heard you say that peace between Palestinians and Israelis is possible. That astounds me.


ZD:  I don’t believe that is a possibility; it is only wishful thinking. The subject of my picture is not ‘the cause;’ it is what Amin is going through.


WB:  Why did you decide to change the book’s ending?


ZD:  It was a purely aesthetic choice. I simply took a different direction.  The book’s ending was global, extroverted. My ending was introverted. The book is written in the first person. My challenge was whether to use a voice-over or not.  I opted not to. But I had to figure out a way to get into Amin’s brain.  The camera helps a lot. You feel you are always with this guy. You follow his every breath.

WB: He can’t get away from himself and neither can the viewer. What does Amin feel so guilty about?     


ZD: He feels that if he had just taken his wife’s phone call, maybe she would not have committed the attack.  Siham obviously had a little bit of doubt herself. 


WB:  I wondered whether the guilt was, ‘how could I not have known my wife better. To not have seen something like this…’


ZD:  It was all of those things. It isn’t clear what was going on in Siham’s head.  Amin tells himself, ‘maybe if I had seen what she was going through; if only I had seen her needs….’ He has to live with that burden.


WB:  You tried to get this film made for more than six years. At one point you even dropped out –- or were fired.  How did you get re-involved?


ZD:  The film has a complicated history. Let me just say that my French producer, Jean Brehat, and I spent two or three years trying to buy back the script from the company that had originally bought it and then abandoned the project. Finally we got it back when a French company stepped in and purchased the rights and made the film. Qatar and Egypt put a lot of money into the production but, when they saw the final result, they asked that their names be taken off the film.


WB:  Had they not read Yasmina Khadra’s book?


ZD:  No, they hadn’t, but they had wanted to work with me.  Plus, at that time, the Qatar Foundation — called the Doha-TriBeCa Institute when they initially gave us the money — was a new company and was headed by an Australian woman, not an Arab, and she loved the project. When Qatar and Egypt saw the film, it was too late to pull out their financing because the film was already completed, but they pulled their names off the film.


WB:  How did The Cohen Group (the distributors) get involved?


ZD:  Jean Brehat had worked with them before. They saw the film and said they were interested in releasing it.  They are actually sharing the distribution rights with the American company Focus Features.


WB:  Am I correct that The Attack will not be released in any Arab countries? 

ZD:  Yes, that is true. The Arab League has banned the film.  The movie will open in Israel in July.


WB:  How do your Lebanese friends who have seen The Attack feel about it?


ZD:  They are divided.  Some think I gave too much weight to the Israeli point of view.


WB:  Are you distrusted now in Lebanon?


ZD: I am definitely distrusted by some people in the liberal community, who believe I have betrayed the Palestinian cause, which is ridiculous. You would expect Hezbollah would distrust me, yet I met with two top leaders of the organization to [discuss] what I was doing with them.


WB:  Many Israelis –- and some American Jews – will criticize the film for being pro-Palestinian.


ZD:  I don’t know what the reaction will be. We hoped Lebanon would submit the film for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration but it has refused to do so.  In a way I believe they are shooting themselves in the foot. 


WB:  Can you talk about growing up in Beirut?


ZD:  I was born in 1963. My whole family is Lebanese and they all still live there, although I now make my home in France. When I was growing up in the 1970s, Lebanon was considered ‘the Paris of the Middle East.’ It was a hub for thoughts and intellectuals, arts and culture.  When the civil war started, there were still ideas worth fighting for. It wasn’t polarized the way it is now. 


WB:  The civil war was the conflict between Christians and Muslims?


ZD:  Between the left wing, which was [predominantly Muslim] and considered pro-Palestinian, and the mainly Christian right wing, which felt threatened by the Palestinian presence. After the Palestinians got kicked out of Jordan the PLO came to Beirut to continue its struggle against the Israelis. They started to arm themselves and suddenly you had a PLO that was better equipped and more powerful than the Lebanese government.  Some people felt threatened by that.

The hostilities began as one between Christians and Muslims but then took a very different turn. In truth, the Lebanese conflict is a big quagmire and not easy to explain who was fighting whom.  The left was fighting the right, the Christians were fighting the Muslims, the Muslims were fighting the Muslims, the pro-Israelis were fighting the pro-Syrians.  It got really confused. And Lebanon is still in a tricky situation because that is the nature of the country.


What’s interesting about Lebanon is that it is a pluralistic democracy. It is the only Arab country that is a democracy. We vote for Parliament; we vote for the President. We have always been a very mixed population; we are not 90% dominated by Islam like Egypt, Jordan or Syria.  We were always 50/50: 50% Muslim, 50% Christian. The Christians have always extended their hand to the West, while the Muslims extend their hand to the East. Today, of course, everybody supports the Palestinians — Christians and Muslims alike.


My parents were part of the Arab movement of the 1970s that demanded the return of Palestine to the Palestinians. They also supported the separation of church and state.  They had good ideas. The problem was that the ideas didn’t work. If fundamentalist Islam has taken over in the Arab world, it is because the secular movement in the 1950s, 60s and 70s failed.


The militants take over, but they don’t represent you, do they? And the Islamists do not represent me.


WB:  How do your parents feel about your film?


ZD:  My parents have been extremely supportive of the process but they have some fears.  Fear is so ingrained in our soul –- throughout the Arab world — because any dealing with Israel or Israelis is so demonized, so stigmatized. It is one of these big no-nos.


WB:  Were your parents afraid you would be harmed when you went to Israel?


ZD:  No, they were afraid what the Lebanese might do when I returned to Beirut, [even though] The Attack has been banned in Lebanon.


WB:  Are you at all concerned for your own safety?                   


ZD:  I have not committed a crime.  The Lebanese government is a lot smarter in dealing with issues than arresting a filmmaker, especially one who holds an American passport.  I am a citizen of three countries, Lebanon, France and the United States. I lived in the US for 20 years, from the age of 19 to 39. I was a camera assistant and operator. I made four films with Quentin Tarantino, including Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. 


WB:  Have the Lebanese seen WALTZ WITH BASHIR or THE GATEKEEPERS, two films in which Israelis criticize their own government?  To me, these films are important for Jews, Israelis, and all Arabs to see.


ZD:  I firmly believe that art can bridge [cultural] gaps, yet the Lebanese have not had the opportunity to see those films. THE GATEKEEPERS actually favors the Arab cause. The Arabs should jump at the opportunity to show that film, but they don’t because anything related to Israel is taboo. 


WB:  Was Yasmina Khadra’s book popular in Arab countries?      


ZD:  No, but it was a big hit in Europe and America.


WB:  Why not in the Arab world?


ZD:  Because it is still a book that shows the Israeli perspective. The Israeli characters are treated as human beings who express their love, ambivalence, desire, insecurity and anxiety. Critics in the Arab world did not root for the book.


WB:  The movie has played at numerous film festivals, has it not?     


ZD:  Seventeen of them. I was really depressed about four years ago, when the project was shelved by the initial production company.  I seriously thought of leaving filmmaking.  My daughter was born at that time. I can remember giving her the bottle and thinking ‘one day she might grow up and see her father and see a broken man because he never made his dreams come true. How am I going to face her?’  So I did not give up.