Yet another film about Palestinian suicide bombing (‘The Attack’)

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 did so, 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.

About Pamela Olson

Pamela Olson is the author of Fast Times in Palestine. She blogs here.
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 36 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. amigo says:

    Maybe he would make a movie about Israel,s sons of terrorism.

    Begin/Shamir/Peres/Rabin et al.

    I know , I know , there were/are no Jewish terrorists.

    Just brave heroes.

  2. Sycamores says:

    i can’t help but feel that this ‘film’ is a disgrace, (i will watch it to fight my bias). i find it more then coinicdental the film is base on a Palestinian doctor. bearly 4 years has past since the slaughter in Gaza where Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish lost three of his daughters to idf fire who later wrote a book ‘I shall not hate’ about sadness, hope, sacrifice and forgiveness. his true life events would make the most poignant film of the century, the facist state would crumble within a year from its debut showing.

  3. OlegR says:

    Talk about trying to be holier then the Pope.

  4. OlegR says:

    Strangely Israeli filmmakers showing Palestinians in sympathetic light
    never get this kind of flack…

    • Pamela Olson says:

      First of all, yes they do. (Have you ever been to Israel?) Second, the problem with this film is not that it shows Israelis in a sympathetic light. The problem is… Well, if you couldn’t understand the article, I’m not sure what good it’ll do to try to explain it here. Maybe try reading it again?

      • OlegR says:

        /First of all, yes they do. /
        Yes from Israelis obviously in the same manner that this guy is getting flack from his Arab brethren. I was talking about the local audience.
        I am an Israeli for the record.
        /Second, the problem with this film is not that it shows Israelis in a sympathetic light. The problem is…/
        The problem is the director does not see the narrative that you see
        or agree with and does not show it in the film.
        There is no context (Now that’s a familiar claim …)

        • oleg,the filmaker decided to cut the part of the movie where an israeli drone kills the guy at the end.

        • Taxi says:

          “I am an israeli for the record”.

          It’s not as simple as that though, is it? Why don’t you tell the world the rest, oleg? Why not say ‘I’m a Russian zealot who’s colonizing the holy land’? Didn’t you papa teach you how to tell the WHOLE truth and not just a passive part of it?

        • OlegR says:

          That’s because unlike in some other states i know off we don’t assassinate our own citizens with drones.

        • Djinn says:

          No you just kidnap them in foreign lands, give them a kanga trial and then when their sentence is up ban them from talking to people or ever leaving the country. Or you put them in 24 hour watch and voila they conveniently suicide.

          You are the proud citizen of a nation that is most thoroughly at ease assassinating all sorts of people (and stealing the passports of nationals of you’re supposed friends and allies to do it) including the teenaged national of your largest benefactor, shooting children through the head while they sit in class, imprisoning people without charge, torture, using white phosphorous in heavilly populated areas, funding religious fundamentalists who encourage the slaughter of children and non Jews as a religious imperative, attacking the armed services of your allies, organizing false flag terrorist attacks against those you claim are your own people and murdering innocent wait staff because, hey all Arabs look the same.

          But you haven’t yet assasinated one of your own via a drone so here’s a human rights lollipop all for you.

        • Cliff says:

          Nope, you just outright kill them OlegR.

          And you rule over millions of people without giving them citizenship because you are there to steal from them.

          Big deal if you dont butcher people with drones. You still rob them, colonize their land and burn them alive with White Phosphorus.

        • Pamela Olson says:

          What do you mean by “local audience”?

          And what do you mean by “Not that’s a familiar claim…” You seem to be alluding to something, but I don’t know what.

          The problem is not that the director does not see the narrative (and/or the facts) that I see. I think he knows more than he is saying. The problem is… well, again, try reading the post again… maybe more slowly this time?

        • OlegR says:

          /The problem is not that the director does not see the narrative (and/or the facts) that I see. I think he knows more than he is saying. The problem is… well, again, try reading the post again… maybe more slowly this time?/

          Again Pamela assume that i am dense and spell it our for me :)

        • OlegR says:

          /There is no context (Now that’s a familiar claim …)/
          That’s what my side says about films like 5 broken cameras …

        • Pamela Olson says:

          Oleg, the Palestinian context is often suppressed or ignored, while the Israeli context (more often than not mendacious) is splashed all over the mainstream news and culture in the West. We don’t need Doueiri giving it to us again. As I said in the article above, if he had aimed it at the Arab world in a sensitive way, that would have been one thing.

          The problem is not that he showed a more Israeli context. (I’ll go ahead and spell it out since you still seem to be having trouble with the plain English above.) The problems are the larger historical and political context in which this film is embedded, and the fact that he caricatured and alienated (for no good reason that I can see) his potential Arab/Muslim audience.

          It’s not black and white. There are some sympathetic Palestinian characters and unsympathetic Israeli ones. But it’s dark grey and light grey, where it should at least be even to have any kind of honest and useful impact. As it is, he won’t be opening or changing minds on either side.

        • Talkback says:

          OlegR says: “That’s because unlike in some other states i know off we don’t assassinate our own citizens with drones.”

          No, you massacred or expelled and denationalized them.

        • amigo says:

          “Again Pamela assume that i am dense and spell it our for me :)”Oleg R,

          We can forgive you for being dense but?.

          “”There are some acts of injustice which no national interest can excuse” (J.A. Froude).”.

        • Cliff says:

          And what is the missing context from 5 Broken Cameras?

  5. Citizen says:

    No context, no motive. They just kill themselves because they hate Jews and Uncle Sam won’t give them an F-16. If the guys get a bunch of comely virgins in the Afterlife for being martyrs, what to the girls get in the Afterlife for blowing themselves up and taking some Jews with them?

  6. Woody Tanaka says:

    “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.”

    That was the point, I’d say. I see no reason why Uncle Tom-ism couldn’t rear its ugly head in this conflict, as well.

    • a blah chick says:

      I seem to recall hearing stories about a black guy who spied for the KKK. He later went on to become a militia leader in the eighties. I wish I could remember his name.

  7. Cliff says:

    link to nytimes.com

    Side-note. Marc Rich died. Clinton-pardoned crook and big Zionist donor. The Israeli government had urged Clinton to pardon him. Guess it worked!

  8. lysias says:

    It would be interesting to learn how this film was funded.

    • Inanna says:

      From the Open Zion link:

      The government of Qatar and an Egyptian producer have withdrawn their names from the film, despite being major financial backers.

  9. andrew r says:

    I wouldn’t link to a memri dispatch on the grounds they pull this B.S.
    link to angryarab.blogspot.com

    Every memri video I’ve bothered to watch has fade-outs edited in to shorten the translated material. That can easily be used to misrepresent the speaker.

    • Pamela Olson says:

      They are frequently used to misrepresent the speaker (and/or the Arab/Muslim world). That’s a big part of their job. They’re an arm of the Israel lobby. It was founded by Yigal Carmon, a former colonel in the Israeli military intelligence, and Meyrav Wurmser, an Israeli-born American political scientist. They bill themselves as “experts on the Middle East” with “helpful” translations from the Middle East. But they often try to highlight the worst and ignore anything good. There have also been damaging straight-up mistranslations.

      The fact that MEMRI decided to translate this says something.

  10. Inanna says:

    I read the anthem article and he calls boycott groups in Lebanon ‘pathetic’. I find the cultural and economic support he provides for an oppressive regime pathetic.

  11. Taxi says:

    The filmmaker wants to put his stale name back on the filmmaking map. Of course he’s gonna choose an explosive theme (pardon the pun) and treat it in a provocative and controversial way. It’s the oldest artist trick in the book.

  12. talknic says:

    Percentage of Palestinians who have been suicide bombers … mmmm … lemme see

    Number of Palestinian suicide bombers = 170 (1990′s – 2008) ( WikIPedia link to en.wikipedia.org )

    Population Palestinian territories = 3.927 million (2011) ( link to google.com.au )

    170/3,927,000 = 0.00433%

  13. amigo says:

    Some really good news.

    Geller,s response,
    “In a striking blow against freedom, the British government has banned us from entering the country. Muhammad al-Arifi, who has advocated Jew-hatred, wife-beating, and jihad violence, entered the U.K. recently with no difficulty. In not allowing us into the country solely because of our true and accurate statements about Islam, the British government is behaving like a de facto Islamic state. The nation that gave the world the Magna Carta is dead.”

    link to haaretz.com

  14. msola says:

    Pamela,

    In case you didn’t know it, the novel on which the movie is based was written by an ex-Algerian military officer who was deeply involved in Algeria’s war against the Islamic party that won the 1991 election but was not allowed to take power.

    He writes under a woman’s name for some reason. His earlier Swallows of Kabul is a polemic against the Taliban. I don’t know The Attack, but from your description it would appear he is still at his long-standing mission against “terrorism.”

    For details about him, see IMDB:

    link to imdb.com

    Mike

  15. Rusty Pipes says:

    So, at a time when Saudi and Qatari-backed insurgents have been committing terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in Syria for the past two years (just one today, in a Christian neigborhood of Damascus’ old city), a Lebanese film-maker makes a Qatari-funded film about a fictional Palestinian Christian suicide bomber (when Palestinians haven’t committed suicide bombings in years).

  16. just says:

    wow. Thank you Pamela.

  17. biorabbi says:

    I cannot wait to watch this movie, but it sounds extremely weird. I also wonder about the sobriety of the screenwriter. I believe the guy who wrote Traffic was stoned most of the time =)