By Joan Ellis
Centuries of religious, cultural, and political anger put the Arab/Israeli conflict beyond our understanding. Once in a great while someone comes forth with a book or a film that throws light on some small corner of the struggle. Ziad Doueiri has done this with his new movie The Attack by focusing on one human story.
As the film opens, Israel is honoring Arab surgeon Dr. Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman) with a prestigious award for his work in a Tel Aviv hospital. The next day, the doctor is among many colleagues helping innocent victims of a suicide attack on a restaurant (17 dead including 11 children). Amin is asked to confirm the identity of the bomber whose wounds are consistent with those suffered by suicides who strap bombs to their bodies. It is, we know by now, his wife Siham (Reymond Amsalem).
At this point director Doueiri rejects facile symbols and opts instead for looking at the massacre metaphorically through Amin’s marriage. The doctor is determined to understand why his wife chose to become a martyr. The camera follows Amin as he crosses to the West Bank town of Nablus, his family home, where he sees celebratory posters of his wife on the walls of buildings.
As Amin asks questions, suspicion spreads through Nablus that he might be working for Shin Bet, the Israeli security force. Now he is not welcome in either his home state of Palestine or in Tel Aviv where he works and lives. The fact that the Shin Bet imprisoned him right after the bombing on charges of collusion with his wife does not silence his critics.
It becomes clear that as little as Israelis and Arabs can understand each other, so did Amin and Siham live closely without reaching bedrock. “How, he asks a terrorist about Siham, could you make a fundamentalist monster out of a woman who wouldn’t hurt a fly?” This movie is Amin’s search for that answer.
At the end of it, the honored doctor has lost the neutrality he valued so highly in being a surgeon to all comers. Though he hasn’t changed, his wife’s terrorist act has made him suspect to the Israelis and the Palestinians. He is left to wonder about Siham’s betrayal and the shattered trust of their marriage. And we are left with one character’s command: “It’s time to reexamine your own certitudes.”
By focusing on a marriage through the eyes of a neutral human being caught in the middle, Director Doueiri, has shown us what it is like to be an alien to both sides. With the aid of a fine, restrained performance by Ali Suliman, Doueiri has seen his film honored, but has also suffered the disappointment of seeing it banned where he most wanted it shown – in Lebanon, his own country, and in all the countries of the Arab League. It is a measured and careful film that should be seen widely.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.