The Attack is a most unusual movie, unfolding against the backdrop of a Palestinian suicide bombing in Israel and grappling with the complexities of its messy aftermath.
Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and now playing in theatres in Canada and the United States, The Attack is unconventional because its main protagonists are Israeli Arabs rather than Israeli Jews and because its screenwriter and director, Ziad Doueiri, is a Lebanese Arab.
Bold and graphic in presenting the dark and violent underbelly of the Arab-Israeli conflict, The Attack is surprisingly measured, conveying a balanced cinematic account of a somber era in Israel’s history, when terrorism was an almost daily fact of life and took a terrible physical and psychological toll on its citizens.
This thriller, too, offers an insight into the status of Arabs in Israel. Although they enjoy equality under the law, Israeli Arabs often feel marginalized and like second-class citizens in the Jewish state.
The film, set in Tel Aviv and the West Bank, opens as Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), a distinguished Israeli Arab surgeon, accepts a medical award from his Israeli peers. As he observes, he’s the first Arab recipient of this exalted prize. The solemnity of the occasion is broken by a suicide bombing that, as usual, claims and maims lives. By virtue of his position as a doctor, Jaafari is thrust into this scene of devastation and desolation, performing emergency surgery on some of its mangled victims.
Returning home after a day punctuated by triumph and tragedy, Jaafari learns that his wife, Siham (Reymond Amsalem), was killed in the blast and that she was probably the perpetrator. The news shocks him to the marrow of his bones. What kind of a commentary is it on their marriage that Siham was secretly a jihadist? Dazed and confused by the sudden and dramatic turn of events, Jaafari finds it hard to internalize the unfathomable.
With a pall of suspicion having fallen on him due to his wife’s descent into “martyrdom,“ Jaafari is interrogated by a tough Israeli security agent and made to feel like an enemy. Jaafari’s accomplishments as a doctor suddenly evaporate, his privileged place in Israeli society all but erased.
To his credit, Doueiri succeeds in drawing a plausible portrait of a man whose career has been abruptly thrown into jeopardy and whose friendships with Jews now seems imperilled. Suliman, in a few fine brush strokes, evokes the conflicting emotions that assail Jaafari in his hour of duress.
At this point, The Attack retreats into the recent past as Jaafari recalls his loving relationship with Siham. The camera pans gently on them as they nakedly embrace in a relatively explicit scene that an Arab director could not even consider including in a mainstream film to be distributed and shown in the Arab world. Clearly, Doueiri marches to his own music.
The film grows still more dense and complex as Jaafari ventures into the West Bank in an attempt to ascertain why Siham turned to terrorism. As he meets a succession of Palestinian Arabs, the bitter politics of Israel’s century-old struggle with the Palestinians surfaces. But even here, Doueiri tries to be fair and even-handed in his treatment of the problem.
To the Lebanese government, however, Doueiri’s commendable balancing act is worthless, falling far short of Arab nationalist standards. The Attack has been banned in Lebanon, having been placed beyond the pale simply because it was partially filmed in Israel and used the services of Israeli actors.
In this case, politics trumps art. Shame on Lebanon.