According to The Attack, the new film by Lebanese director Ziad Doueri (West Beirut), Palestinian suicide bombers may or may not be motivated by religious fundamentalism, nationalism, revenge or an unhappy marriage. Despite trudging through the subject for nearly two hours, the film fails to commit itself to any tangible analysis of what may lead a person to commit such an unthinkable act, though that’s what it seems to set out to do.
The Attack is novel in attempting to address the precarious situation of Palestinian citizens of Israel. But here too Doueiri completely misses the mark — they’re portrayed as teetering between one of two polar opposite options: assimilating to Jewish Israeli society or joining the armed resistance.
This conflict is shown through the film’s main characters — Amin Jaafari, a successful surgeon and Palestinian citizen of Israel, and Siham, his beautiful, modern and intelligent wife. Amin is played by Ali Suliman, and Siham by Reymond Amsalem (Doueri, criticized for casting an Israeli as a Palestinian woman, has said he couldn’t find a Palestinian actress willing to do the nude scenes).
Amin, who works in a hospital in sparkling Tel Aviv, has accepted a prestigious award from an Israeli surgeon’s society with an elegant speech in fluent Hebrew. His colleagues are Jewish Israelis with whom he has warm friendships; while chatting with a group of them on a hospital veranda an explosion is heard in the distance. Chaos ensues as the severely injured casualties are wheeled in on stretchers; one of the wounded refuses to let Amin treat him for the unspoken reason that Amin is Arab.
Siham is soon identified as a suspect for the bombing, and from here Doueiri mangles the plot. Amin is called by his colleague Raveed (apparently an intelligence agent) who tells him to come to the hospital; Amin identifies what remains of Siham’s body, faints and then is taken into custody once he regains consciousness.
Amin is interrogated and subjected to extremely loud heavy metal music to deprive him of sleep in his jail cell, but is released after only three days. This is pretty unbelievable to anyone familiar with Israel’s warehousing of Palestinians for “crimes” such as rock throwing; Israel currently jails hundreds of Palestinians without charge or trial.
Amazingly, Amin is left to his own devices, free from harassment by Israeli authorities. He stays with Kim, a Jewish Israeli friend who appears unruffled by the fact that the wife of her friend committed the bombing; there is a heaviness but no real shock about what happened, as though Siham had inevitably succumbed to an illness.
This most tolerant friend even has a dinner party with Amin in attendance, but things become awkward when Amin picks an argument with Raveed, whose mother Amin once treated (in a later scene they patch things up over Taybeh beer and whiskey).
After he finally comes to realize that Siham was indeed the bomber, Amin is driven by the need to understand why she did it. The Attack takes on the pace and tenor of a suspenseful thriller as Amin’s search takes him to the occupied West Bank city of Nablus.
This is where Amin’s extended family lives, and, he has learned, Siham spent her last night on earth. Amin is estranged from his sister for reasons never fully explored — equally unknown is why his family live in the West Bank city while Amin is from the Triangle area of present-day Israel.
Detached from reality
Life for Amin’s family in Nablus has gone on as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Somehow they have been spared the punitive demolitions of houses and mass arrests that typically occur in the wake of an armed operation, showing how detached Doueri’s script (based on the novel by the same name by Yasmina Khadra, the pen name of the Algerian army officer turned novelist, Mohammed Moulessehou) is from reality.
Amin’s family and others he meets in Nablus freely praise Siham’s operation and her martyr poster is pasted in the city’s alleyways, giving the impression that there is universal support of suicide bombing as a resistance tactic among Palestinians in the West Bank, who generally come off in this film as simplistic and brimming with vengeance.
(It’s worth noting that suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians became frequent after the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron’s Ibrahimi mosque perpetrated by a settler from Brooklyn and continued through the second intifada. The last incidents occurred in 2008 as Palestinian armed groups have largely abandoned this tactic; opinion polls have shown it is widely disapproved of by Palestinians.)
The shadowy scenes in Nablus, populated by all kinds of untrustworthy characters, stand in stark contrast to those in bright Tel Aviv, where even Shin Bet intelligence agents are wise and sympathetic, if Islamophobic.
Amin encounters thugs at a Nablus mosque as he attempts to find the fundamentalist “Sheikh Marwan” who is said to have radicalized his Christian wife (in an incredibly heavy-handed scene worthy of a made-for-TV special, Amin gets into a taxi and the driver wastes no time in playing the sheikh’s latest militant sermon). This Sheikh Marwan turns out to be a red herring; the bizarre climax of the film finds Amin in a church with a sinister priest rather than a sheikh.
Throughout the film Amin has visions of Siham which give him clues about the woman it turns out he had become alienated from as he was pulled into the embrace of Jewish Tel Aviv and she to the resistance in the West Bank. But because Siham is never fleshed out as a character and viewers see so little of the nature of their relationship and their personal evolutions, the conclusion is more confusing than satisfying.
Likewise, it is told but never shown how Siham “snapped” when she saw the aftermath of the 2002 massacre in Jenin refugee camp. While sparing none of the gore of the suicide bombing victims’ injuries, shown in extreme close-ups, the Israeli occupation is decidedly sanitized.
All the film shows of Israel’s oppressive colonial rule which colors every aspect of Palestinian life is some shoving by soldiers at a checkpoint and a pile of rubble at what is understood to be Jenin camp. If the cruelty of the occupation is what caused Siham to snap, it is only alluded to here.
Meanwhile, in a letter that arrives to Amin’s home several days after the bombing (that Israeli intelligence wouldn’t intercept it is implausible), Siham explains that “no child is completely safe if he has no country.” And in another scene she states in the film her desire to hold a passport — though as a Palestinian citizen of Israel she would have one (there are numerous such factual inaccuracies in the film).
Yet none of what bits are shown of Siham and her relationship with Amin add up to the conclusion that led her to kill herself and more than a dozen others in a crowded restaurant.
The Attack (released under the more meaningful title The Shock in Arabic) ultimately suffers not just in its gross misrepresentation of reality in occupied Palestine, but also from its incoherent script. It is like a distorted funhouse mirror answer to Hany Abu Assad’s compelling Paradise Now, which also takes up the theme of suicide bombing (and which Suliman also stars in), but with none of its moments of levity.
The Attack does however succeed in perpetuating the pernicious stereotype of Palestinians as universally glorifying terrorism and Palestinian citizens of Israel as the potential enemy within.
Reportedly banned in Lebanon for violating the Israel boycott law because it was filmed in Tel Aviv (Palestinian and Lebanese groups have also protested the film for breaking the cultural boycott of Israel), it is no surprise that The Attack was so warmly received at its sold-out premiere at an Israeli film festival in Jerusalem.
An earlier version of this review stated that Ali Suliman appeared in Miral; this has since been corrected.
Maureen Clare Murphy is managing editor of The Electronic Intifada.