When I spoke recently with Ziad Doueiri, writer and director of The Attack, I couldn’t help but ask him a bit about his biography, which is now inextricably tied with his film’s content. The Lebanese director’s latest film was just banned by the Arab League, prohibiting anyone in its 22 member nations from screening it without risking arrest. Doueiri, who cut his teeth as a regular of Quentin Tarantino’s camera crew, moved back to his native Lebanon after the events of 9/11. Now because of the ban, he can’t even hold a screening in his own home.
Because his move away from the U.S. came right after the events of 9/11, it was easy to assume that it was based in part on politics: “9/11 had nothing to do with it,” he told me. “There was a girl there.”
This exchange mirrors the experience of watching The Attack, which opens in New York and DC on Friday. All of the press surrounding the film, as well as the opening scenes, prepare you for a deeply political film, but in the end it has more in common with Before Midnight than any heavy-handed geopolitical drama. Yet despite his efforts to make a personal film, politics – in the form of the Arab League – found a way to intervene.
The film opens on Amin (Ali Suliman), a Palestinian surgeon living in Tel Aviv whose life is mostly untouched by the violent conflict between the two countries; when we first meet him, the local medical board is giving him an award in a purposefully transparent effort to appear liberal and tolerant. The veil of tolerance that surrounds Amin is lifted, however, when his wife is killed in a bombing, and forensic evidence suggests that she was not one of the bombing’s victims, but its perpetrator.
The good doctor embarks on a journey of grief and discovery that leads him to a terrorist-controlled Palestinian region, where he hopes to find the cleric who he thinks brainwashed his wife. It’s here that The Attack morphs into a gripping film noir, with Amin playing the role of detective in a dangerous world. When he finally uncovers the truth, it has little to do with politics.
Instead, the film consistently reminds us of the human impact our political conflicts have.
Doueiri’s public statements have backed up this reading of the film as nonpolitical: “My sole goal is the craftsmanship of the film, its authenticity, filming it in real places with real characters and not trying to please such or such group,” he recently said. To that end, he has succeeded. The film feels lived in, and it never stoops to didacticism or sensationalism (it’s admirable that, for someone who worked so closely with Tarantino, there’s not a single frame of onscreen violence).
But since the boycott, the film has become a de facto political work that raises some interesting questions about the effectiveness of censorship in the digital age.
The Arab League claims they banned the film because Doueiri shot in Tel Aviv and used Israeli actors, a violation of the League’s boycott of all things Israel. The director scoffs at this notion and points out that other Lebanese films have been shot in Israel without being banned. His take is that the film offended League officials because it depicted a truly balanced portrait of the conflict, instead of demonizing Israel.
But either way, the ban is – ironically – mostly good news for Doueiri. It’s attracting lots of press in the West, where it otherwise might have come and gone without much notice. The film often feels as if it was intended for a Western audience, anyway, particularly in its use of noir conventions, and the way Amin, an educated Arab whose has never felt the impact of violence, offers an easy entry point for liberal Americans.
Further, it’s unlikely that the ban will even prevent Arabs from seeing the film. Although these boycotts do apply to all member nations of the Arab League (which beyond Lebanon includes Palestine, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, and others), enforcement varies from country to country. On internet message boards, many young Arabs have noted that in the digital age, these boycotts have less influence. Movies are easy enough to download, and there is a thriving black market for DVDs in the Middle East.
And so this attempt at censorship is likely to have the opposite of its intended effect. Maybe Doueiri knew what he was doing after all. He obviously knew about the Arab League boycott on Israel, and he even brazenly cast an Israeli woman as the Palestinian terrorist, although he of course chalked this up as a purely artistic decision.
It all makes me wonder if he learned more from Tarantino, a director who understands how negativity in the press can drive box office receipts, than how to move the camera.