JERUSALEM — Banned by Lebanon, ignored by Arab countries and praised by U.S. critics, the suicide-bomber drama “The Attack” finally got a splashy sold-out Middle East premiere — in Jerusalem.
Many people settling into their seats at the recent Jerusalem Film Festival screening in the plush Cinematheque, which overlooks the Old City, had lived through the years when Palestinian suicide bombings roiled Israeli society, killing hundreds of people in crowded cafes, buses and markets.
Now, as the theater grew dark, Israelis were asked to examine their country’s security equation through the eyes of Amin Jafaari, an award-winning Israeli surgeon of Palestinian background who is shocked to discover that his beautiful wife is a suicide bomber, responsible for a blast at a Tel Aviv cafe that claims 17 victims, including 11 children.
At first, Jafaari is disbelieving and outraged. Eventually he heads to the Palestinian West Bank city of Nablus to find out how she could have done this.
There, he finds his wife celebrated as a martyr in posters and handbills, and by hostile extremists who order him out of a mosque. Even his relatives are proud of her. His wife’s young co-conspirator struggles to explain how Palestinian civilian casualties in an Israeli army attack could motivate him to orchestrate such a heinous act.
When the lights went up, Ali Suliman, the Nazareth-born Palestinian Israeli actor who played Jafaari, seemed relieved.
“People clapped. I think they love it,” he said. “It’s the first time they saw material that shows this conflict this way. They come out with a lot of question marks and exclamation points.”
Suliman would like to screen the film in the West Bank, where the crew crossed Israeli roadblocks to shoot on location in Nablus, a city that was the scene of clashes between the Israeli army and Palestinian fighters in 2002.
“I have a lot of curiosity about the audience in Palestine,” he said. “I’d like to see how they view it.”
Exactly who will be able to watch “The Attack” in the Middle East remains to be seen. Permission to show the film in Lebanon was revoked on the grounds that Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri violated a 1955 Lebanese Israel boycott law when he cast Israeli actors and filmed in Israel. None of the more than 20 Arab League members are showing the film in their countries, and the only deal for commercial distribution in the Middle East is in Israel, Doueiri said.
At the packed Jerusalem premiere, an organizer warned the audience to be respectful. But the discussion was so friendly that a moderator joked that one step toward solving the conflict might be to“make a film with the enemy.”
“This has been a very sensitive production,” Doueiri told the audience via Skype, from Paris. “I am from Beirut. The relationship between we Lebanese and Israel, I can’t say it is a friendly one. But I had a curiosity about the other perspective. I was curious about the emotional aspect. Our hostile background — I had to look beyond that.”
While making the film, Doueiri spent 11 months in Tel Aviv, because “I wanted to immerse myself,” he said. “I learned, you are just as fragile as we are, just as insecure as we are. It humanizes that element, of people who were viewed as an enemy. There is a sad reality on the ground. This is one aspect of Israel. I’ve seen another aspect that is terrific.”
Trying to portray both the Israeli and Palestinian points of view “was a tightrope,” he said. “When I walked through the script, there were a lot of land mines. It’s still an experience that haunts me.”
Even Doueiri’s mother warned him not to attend the Jerusalem premiere.
“If I set foot in Jerusalem, that would have been the end for me to go back to Lebanon,” he said from Paris in a later interview by phone. “I did not want to risk it.”
“The film probably would have been released if I had demonized Israelis,” he said, believing that the Lebanese would have been less likely to enforce their boycott if he had reinforced the image of the “Darth Vader Israeli.”
“I can’t tell you how much I wanted that film to be released in the Arab world,” Doueiri said. “I come from there. I know the culture. This film, in Palestine and Lebanon, would have spoken to people differently. It is talking about their ideologies and beliefs. Americans have a different reaction to ‘Lincoln.’ I thought this would speak to the Arabic population in a different way.”
Reymonde Amsellem, the Israeli actress who plays Siham, the female suicide bomber, told the Jerusalem premiere’s audience that “to me, she was a very mysterious character,” at first.
“But while working on the movie I saw that the biggest reason for her helpless feeling was that you can have a husband, a life, everything, but you don’t have a place you can call home,” she said. “For me, that was the key.
“It was also a love story, about a person you think you know, but don’t completely know,” she said. “It’s about people on both sides of the conflict, how similar they are, and how illogical the conflict is.”
The film airs issues that Israelis have spent their entire lives grappling with.
“It’s a difficult one,” said Oren Barak, a Jewish political science professor who teaches a course in Israeli-Lebanese relations at Hebrew University. “I don’t support suicide bombings. But it showed the emotional side, the perspective, from different angles.”
“It gave the feeling that the characters were real and that you could identify with them, although, of course, not always with their actions,” he mused. That “was quite unusual, since filmmakers in the two countries — Israel and Lebanon — more often than not present the other side, if at all, in a ‘caricaturist’ way, which tells you more about them than about the other side.”
The film will still circulate in the Arab world through pirated copies, Doueiri said.
It won best film at the Marrakech Film Festival in December. At a low-key screening in Dubai, Doueiri said, “the reaction was more positive than expected.”
But Lebanon rejected his suggestion to submit the film as its entry in the Academy Awards, and the Arab League nixed regional distribution deals, he said, while adding that backers from Egypt and Qatar asked that their names be removed from the credits.
“It’s not the Arab public that said no — it’s the Arab authorities,” Doueiri said. “I’m not saying the occupation isn’t there. In a general sense, they are not willing to see that this is a conflict that has several sides. The Israelis who are seeing the film, they are willing to look at this conflict from a view that there is no simple right or wrong. The Arabs are not yet at that point.”