Dr. Amin Jaafari is a renowned surgeon at a Tel Aviv hospital. An Israeli Arab, he believes that all Arabs have a little Jewish in them and all Jews have a little Arab in them. He’s self-assured, magnetic and is adored by his Jewish colleagues and friends. He has a beautiful Palestinian Christian wife and a home in tony Herzliya. Life is ideal.
Then one day during his shift at the hospital, a bomb goes off in a nearby street. And Doctor McDreamy wakes up.
Jaafari’s journey away from his illusions is the territory Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri covers in “The Attack,” which opens in the Washington area on June 21. Filmed in Israel and the West Bank, “The Attack” is a mystery, a crime story and ultimately a story of marriage and betrayal.
“It is the voyage of this man,” Doueiri says by phone from New York.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict serves as backdrop for the filmmaker. His main interest is character, not politics. “The conflict is just the cherry on the cake,” he says. “The story is the journey of this man.”
Very quickly, the explosion is discovered to be a suicide bombing at a restaurant, where a children’s birthday party was underway. The body of Jaafari’s wife, Sihem (Reymonde Amsellem), is found among the victims.
Then the other shoe drops: Israeli intelligence concludes that Sihem was the bomber. Jaafari, played by Ali Suliman, protests his wife’s innocence. But the security man is adamant, and he’s looking for motives: “How could a woman, pampered by her husband and friends, most of whom are Jews, blow herself up and kill 17 people?” he demands from Jaafari.
Jaafari has no answers. He sets off to Nablus in the West Bank to find out “who brainwashed my wife.” He talks to relatives, who turn out to know more about Sihem than he does. He’s thrown out of the mosque of a radical sheik because his followers are afraid the Israelis are using Jaafari to spy on them. The secrets keep piling on. In the end, secrets are what Jaafari brings back to Tel Aviv.
Based on a novel by Algerian Yasmina Khadra, “The Attack” was banned in Doueiri’s native Lebanon because parts of it were filmed in Israel. Lebanon’s Israel boycott committee lobbied the Arab League to keep the film from being shown. “Their purpose is to attack anything that has to do with Israel,” he says.
Doueiri says his own thoughts about Israel have “evolved.” He left Beirut in 1983, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. He took his fear of Israelis with him to San Diego State University, where he studied film. The years moderated his views. But making “The Attack” was “a life-changing experience,” he says. Doueiri spent months in Israel, working with Jewish actors and an Israeli crew. “It helped me overcome my prejudice against Jews and Israelis,” he says.
Along with the divide between husbands and wives and Arabs and Jews, the film also touches on the wariness and wonder with which Palestinians in the territories and Palestinian Israelis eye each other. “It must be strange to live with them,” Jaafari’s niece in Nablus says to him, “them” being the Jews.
Doueiri says the comment doesn’t reflect the otherness of the Jews as much as it shows how the life of an “inside Palestinian” looks to an “outside Palestinian.”
The question that hangs over the movie is, what radicalizes some people? Doueiri and co-writer Joelle Touma tried to understand what would motivate Sihem to strap on a bomb and die in an act of resistance carried out against innocent children and calculated to devastate her husband.
“We started to come up with a profile of her,” he says. But they abandoned the effort after several attempts. The movie is not Sihem’s. It is Jaafari’s, whose dreamy life before the attack convinced him that he had solved the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for himself.
“The bigger truth,” Doueiri says, “is if you think you’re above the conflict, you’re a victim of your own naiveté.”
“The Attack” opens in Washington on June 21 at E-Street Cinema and June 28 at AMC Shirlington.
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