Note: There are several spoilers below; read at your own risk.
Yes, another movie about Palestinians that focuses on terrorism. The concept of suicide bombing is cinematically compelling for many reasons. But given how few feature films are made about Palestine, it is painful to see this fringe theme—isolated in time, within a certain context, and since abandoned—recycled over and over again, as if it somehow defines the Palestinian experience.
Leaving that aside, an individual film can potentially handle this subject with sensitivity and balance, using it as a vehicle for understanding the Palestinian context, when and how certain things go off the rails of civilized behavior (hint: it’s not a one-way street), how and why Israeli society reacts, and what can be done to ease tensions sustainably.
I hoped the new movie The Attack, made by Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri, based on a novel by an Algerian living in France, would be such a film. It’s in the news now mainly because the Arab world has boycotted it, supposedly because it violates the economic boycott of Israel and portrays Israelis as human beings. I wanted to see if that was really the case, or if there were deeper reasons for rejecting the film.
What I found was that, frustratingly, it was almost a good and potentially powerful film. The set-up is promising. A prominent Palestinian-Israeli surgeon, Dr. Amin, is receiving a prestigious award from his peers in Tel Aviv, speaking graciously in front of a room full of Jewish Israelis, apparently oblivious to the fact that he’s been tokenized.
Being jarred out of his complacency when the unthinkable happens could lead to all kinds of fascinating revelations. It’s even hinted at some point that he’s been used to bolster Israel’s image of multiculturalism and tolerance. But it’s never explained what that fig leaf is trying to cover up.
And therein lies the problem. Virtually no context is given for anything Palestinians do. So a casual viewer will leave the theater no more educated than when he walked in, except perhaps with a slightly more sympathetic view of Israelis.
This might be fine if the film were made primarily for entertainment about a conflict long-since resolved. But one can only imagine how distasteful and destructive it would have been to make a movie during the days of Jim Crow or Apartheid, supposedly about black characters, in which the lives and motivations of black people and their political context are glossed over, caricatured, or left inscrutable, while most white characters are portrayed as reasonable, compelling, sympathetic, and relatable.
Several details also ring false, not least of which is the main premise—that a happily married upper middle class Christian woman living in Israel inexplicably commits a suicide bombing. (I’ll leave aside the fact that she’s apparently from Nablus, and it isn’t explained how she acquired Israeli citizenship in the first place. In reality, “family reunification” is nearly impossible when it comes to Palestinian-Israelis marrying Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza.) To my knowledge, no Christians or middle-aged married women have committed suicide bombings in Israel, and only two Palestinian-Israelis early on in the second Intifada.
Furthermore, a Palestinian man from the West Bank is shown driving freely from Nablus to Tel Aviv, as if this is a normal and easy thing. It’s later revealed that he switches his license plates each time, but a person new to the conflict would likely miss the explanation and assume all Palestinians are allowed to travel freely to any Israeli city.
It’s also not clear which year the narrative takes place. Which is important. These things don’t happen in a vacuum. If it took place in the 90s, it would be one thing. In 2002, quite another. In 2005, a totally different situation. And in 2012, it would be preposterous. As far as I’d know from watching this film, Palestinians just do suicide bombings whenever (even up to the present day), most Palestinians (Christian or Muslim) always support them, and nothing ever changes.
It’s also strange that Israeli commentators in the film claim suicide bombings are for publicity for various militant groups, yet no group ever takes responsibility for this bombing. An obvious contradiction that is never resolved.
Also puzzlingly, when the identity of the bomber becomes known, and Dr. Amin, suspected of being a co-conspirator, is taken in for interrogation, the questioning is not nearly as tough or prolonged as one would expect in reality—and then he is simply let go to wander freely around both Israel and the West Bank.
When Dr. Amin finally becomes convinced that his wife did the bombing, he travels to Nablus searching for clues about who sent her on her mission and why. He doesn’t learn much, other than that her family is proud of her for doing what she did, and a fiery sheikh named Marwan is a cartoonish dolt and a thug. When he finally figures out who put her up to it (another cartoonishly creepy character), it’s not believable to anyone who knows the region well. And even if you intimately understand the Palestinian situation, his sloganistic justification sounds hollow. If you don’t, it sounds absurd.
While the Palestinian context is hinted and talked about occasionally, it’s done in a shallow way. At one supposedly climactic moment, Dr. Amin walks by a bunch of destroyed buildings, and we’re supposed to feel some kind of stirring emotion. But while the crumbled masonry is disturbing, it’s nearly meaningless without any context, and it packs very little emotional punch. (Nothing at all like the scene and aftermath of the suicide bombing, for example.)
But the worst part comes at the end, when Dr. Amin decides not to turn anyone in for this crime (which doesn’t seem in line with his character and won’t make sense to the average viewer), and an Israeli woman chides him, essentially saying with a genuinely hurt expression on her face, “And after all we did for you!”
One could easily walk away thinking of Israelis as benevolent and Palestinians as ungrateful, fanatic screw-ups who support terrorism by default, at all times.
There are good things to say about the film. The cinematography is lovely, and parts of it were shot in Nablus, which is beautiful as always. The filmmaker creates some memorable characters (mostly Israelis but also a Palestinian niece who’s fun to watch). A lot of the acting is phenomenal, including that by Ali Suliman. He does as much as he can with the source material.
If this film had been sensitive enough to the perspective of the oppressed, and had all these great Israeli characters, it might have been moving for many in the Arab world and a balm for the region. Simply seeing a relatable Israeli character in a film that didn’t insult Arabs could have been revelatory for people who’d never encountered such a thing.
Sadly, the opportunity was lost.
One might wonder why a Lebanese filmmaker would create a film like this, especially the man who made the wonderful movie West Beirut. You can hear him speak in his own words here (interview with Al-Arabiya, translated by the Israel lobby group MEMRI), here (interview with Anthem), and here (article in The Jewish Week).
Incidentally, a sneak preview of the film took place in the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. A Jewish friend who attended said it was well-received, though he was angered by it for similar reasons to the ones outlined above.
P.S. I’ve heard from a reliable source that the book on which the movie is based is much more thoughtful and realistic than the film. She advises people who read this review not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” I haven’t read the book, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, and I hope I’ll have time to read it soon.