Recent developments surrounding the new Lebanese film The Attack have to be disappointing for writer/director Ziad Doueiri. Having grown up in Beirut before moving to America and cutting his teeth as part of Quentin Tarantino‘s regular crew, he moved back to Lebanon after 9/11 to make more personal films. His latest, a tense and moving drama about an Arab surgeon in Tel Aviv who learns that his recently deceased wife may have secretly been a terrorist, was surely intended to spark discussion, but it was recently banned by the Arab League and will not be distributed in any of its 22 member nations. The ban has garnered the film some press, but it must be bittersweet for Doueiri.
The Attack seems designed to appeal more to Westerners, though, anyway. His protagonist, Amin (Ali Sullman), begins as a mere observer of the bloody conflict between Israel and Palestine. When we first meet him, he is receiving an award from the local medical board that uses him as a tool to promote their tolerance. In Amin’s narrow world, Jews and Muslims can get along just fine, a perspective that leaves him unprepared for the impending double dose of reality: His wife is killed in a terrorist attack, and grief turns to confusion when he learns that his wife may not have been the victim but the perpetrator—-a suicide bomber.
The film often seems poised to lean towards didacticism, but Douieri consistently foregoes heavy-handed political statements and stays focused on Amin’s personal journey. With the society that once accepted his differences now viewing him as a possible accomplice to his wife’s crimes, Amin becomes the outsider he never felt like before. After a brutal interrogation from a police inspector that removes any remnants of his dignity, he leaves his home in Tel Aviv and sets out on a suicide mission of his own: to find and confront the terrorist leader he believes brainwashed his wife.
Amin is the center of every scene, and Sullman gives a knockout performance, subtly and effectively depicting each stage of grief. But Doueiri still deserves the lion’s share of praise. Effortlessly mixing genres—-the tense political drama takes on elements of film noir in the film’s second half when Amin plays detective in the terrorist-controlled region of Nablus—-the director always keeps his eyes on Amin’s character. Eventually, the political elements recede into the background, and we are left with a close study of grief overcome.
Meanwhile, The Attack is being pitched to the public as a political film. Doueiri’s desire to ease tension between Jews and Arabs is admirable, but it looks like the Arab League will quash that particular ambition; in Arab League nations, it can only be viewed by those who are willing to risk arrest to see it. It’s a shame because his film offers a rare evenhanded approach to the issue, which it achieves by following an old, unrelated political axiom: The personal is political.