By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 21, 2013 at 9:40AM
Lebanese-American writer-director Ziad Doueiri captures, in his Tel Aviv-set terrorist drama "The Attack," what it means to be the man in the middle. The film is opening June 21 stateside after playing the festival circuit. But it is banned in Lebanon, because Doueiri shot the film in Tel Aviv, breaking the Lebanese law forbidding a citizen to go to Israel. UPDATE: In fact, Doueiri told NPR, the Arab League has banned the film in all 22 Arab States. It will show July 5 in Israel.
Based on Yasmina Khadra's novel, this riveting story is about a Palestinian surgeon (Ali Suliman) working and --he thinks--accepted as a high-end professional in Tel Aviv. He comes home to his family every night and adores his doting wife (Reymonde Amsellem). When she dies in a suicide bombing, the grieving husband is utterly baffled and unable to understand how or why she --of all people--could have been secretly plotting this self-destructive and violent terrorist act. He initially denies it. But during the course of the film he tracks down the truth of her anger and zeal.
Doueiri previously directed the coming-of-age drama "Lila Says" (2004) and in the 1990s, was a camera assistant to Quentin Tarantino on four of his features including "Jackie Brown" and "Pulp Fiction."
"The Attack," which was developed by Focus Features, was independently financed and acquired out of the festival circuit (reviews here and here) by Cohen Media Group. The film won three prizes at Col-Coa in April, including the Audience Award and the Special Critics' Prize.
Where were you born?
I was born in Lebanon and emigrated to the U.S. and went back. I'd been raised in a French school in Beirut. Lebanon is a peculiar place, so bicultural it goes along with you. There is a Western influence, an Eastern influence. Most people are fluctuating between those identities. Am I considered part of the Middle East or do I have aspirations to look up to the West? This psychology is formed in you early on. When I came to America, I can totally understand and melt in the culture, but I never felt I beloved.
Where did you live in America?
In Los Angeles, 18 years, in Venice, working as a film camera assistant for a long time. I graduated from UC San Diego, wanted to work in film to get my hands-on real experience, did music videos, TV, feature films, all kinds of stuff.
What was your first feature film job?
"The Munchies," I was an electrician, my first real experience. Jamie Beardsley the producer got me to work on it, 'you have to make your way, learn the craft.' I knew early on I just wanted to work on camera. I wanted to be a director of photography.
I interned at Panavision and Paramount to get to know the cameras, then Jamie Beardsley called about a project, 'not a lot of money, as a favor,' assistant camera on "Reservoir Dogs." I got in the union after that non-union film. When I read the script I didn't understand it, it was so delicate, it was either a piece of shit or genius. It turned out to be a one-of-a-kind project. I worked for Quentin on assistant camera on "Jackie Brown" and "Pulp Fiction" and cameraman on "From Dusk Till Dawn" and "Four Rooms."
Why not stay in the camera department?
After that I wanted to try and write a story. I took time off and wrote this script, "Man in the Middle." I knew I would not have a chance to finance it in the U.S. because of my personal autobiography, me growing up in West Beirut. It was selected at Director's Fortnight at Cannes. I don't remember much about the Cannes thing. I was a technician, I didn't absorb it, I didn't understand its value. People talk to you. I was clueless! I was just interested in the work. I didn't have a grasp of what it meant to have your film released. It took me a while to get over the technician's mentality, behind the camera.
What is your identity?
I was always wrestling with the identity thing. Where do I fit best? I don't feel it for any place in particular. It does not cause me trauma. I am constantly swimming on the margin, neither 100% American, French, nor Lebanese. I am none of those. I am the result of those three. Sometimes it's an asset, no one can put you in a category. That I do not make typical Lebanese, European or American films does not bother me. I have a permanent feeling that I do not belong to any particular place forever.
Where did you find your financing for your first feature, "West Beirut," about the civil war?
In Lebanon, and French financing. It was at a time when the Lebanese cinema did not exist. The film is written with a classic structure, not in an artsy-fartsy way, with an arc and three-acts, beginning, middle and end. When it was released in Lebanon (in 1998) it was a huge hit.
I wrote and finished the script for "Man in the Middle" two weeks after the September 11 bombing. It's a very American film about an ex-diplomat based in the Middle East, a leader in the U.S. administration who now sells used cars in the Middle East. The U.S. Secretary of State lands in Beirut and calls the guy, he needs help with the Arabs and Jews, he's an expert in the field. After September 11 it was incredibly difficult to try and make, to talk about this area. You cannot ask producers or the public. To show it in perspective after September 11 was inconceivable.
What did you do then?
I wrote another film in France, "Lila Says," that went to Toronto, Sundance, was released by Sony Classics, DVDs via Goldwyn. Because of "Lila Says" I was approached by Focus to do the next one, "The Attack," they developed it with me, then decided not to do it, for some financial reasons, they didn't think it was feasible. After that I took the script and went back to the original producer of "West Beirut," who financed it. That took us three years from its inception.
"The Attack" is really about marriage.
Focus stumbled on the book and suggested it to me. I thought it was a fantastic book, had figured out the co-screenwriter with all of them, Joelle Touma. We figured out the way to adapt the story, which was written in the first person, figure out the structure. What I loved about the book, it's not about the Israel/Palestinian conflict, it's about a marriage: do you really know someone, or do you think you know someone? Your idea of happiness that you work for does not necessarily mean your partner's idea of happiness. Everyone has a different idea about what it means.
I did casting in Lebanon, where we are not exposed to Israeli films. We're in a state of war, there isn't any exchange. When I went to Israel, I did regular casting of the Palestinian and Israeli actors, I went about it the old-fashioned way. I didn't know who I was writing the thing for. It's a small budget; I shot digital for the first time with the Alexa. I shot the others on 35mm.
The main financiers were Arab countries, the Doha Institute, Qatar. The Egyptian producer, a woman, decided after seeing the film to pull her name off the credits, because it is shot in Israel with Israeli actors. Why would I want to shoot in Montreal or NY instead of Tel Aviv? Aman, Damascus and Cairo look alike, but Tel Aviv--it's modern, it looks like LA, it is a city that stands out. It's totally different, not like what you see in "The Hurt Locker," it's not Baghdad or Iraq. We had to shoot the film there, even if we were violating Lebanese law, which forbids a citizen from going to Israel. That's why the film is banned in Lebanon.
Did you expect it to be banned?
I thought there was a chance that maybe somebody would be smart enough to overlook the legal aspect, and see that the film had Israeli actors. I might pursue it in court, we're talking about it. I live between Paris and Los Angeles, I'm married, and my wife did not want to deal with the legal aftermath, which could become an imbroglio.
I started feeling for the first time in exile. I always felt psychologically in exile between Lebanon, France and Los Angeles. I am planning to go back and fight the decision. Arab people should watch this movie. It is my homeland. They should be the sole decider, not some taboo-ridden issues. The Israeli issue is very taboo. They can see it through a pirated copy, that's the only way. I would have preferred a regular nice theater rather than on YouTube or a pirated copy.