Ziad Doueiri tries a new ‘Attack’

June 24, 2013


A glance at Ziad Doueiri’s page on the Internet Movie Database makes it look as though the writer-director has been following the Terrence Malick career model: “The Attack,” his new film which opened in limited release 6/21/13, is only his second film credit since his film “West Beirut” in 1998, along with directing an episode of the short-lived Showtime series “Sleeper Cell.”

Sitting in a midtown Manhattan conference room, the shaggy-haired Doueiri laughs when this is pointed out and says there’s no big secret about what he’s been doing.

“I was being unemployed and lazy,” he cracks. “Actually, I’ve been writing different projects. But I’m a slow writer. I wasn’t trained as a writer-director. And the projects I write are difficult to finish.”

Case in point: “The Attack,” which has been building buzz on the film festival circuit since its debut last September in Telluride. Based on a novel by Yasmina Khadra, the film took Doueiri six years to bring to the screen, much of it spent trying to adapt the novel with collaborator Joelle Touma, his wife, and an almost equal period trying to find the money to film in Israel and Palestinian territories.

“After we wrote the first draft, it was turned down,” Doueiri says. “I was discouraged. In fact, there was a period from 2007-2011 that I thought I might not pursue film as my career. It was too difficult.”

Part of the challenge was adapting a novel written almost entirely as an interior monologue.

“The book has so many scenes in which the protagonist is talking – about 80 percent,” Doueiri says. “When we sat down to write it, we thought, ‘How do we do it without all the great material that lets you get inside?’ The book had one great scene after another of what he believes in.

“We thought about a voice-over – and then we said, ‘Let’s try doing it without any narration,’ by creating conflict in each scene. How could we lose all that? But we did.”

The film focuses on Dr. Amin Jafaari (played by actor Ali Suliman), a Palestinian Israeli who is an award-winning surgeon – but who discovers his wife may have been responsible for a suicide bombing. Doueiri, however, had no interest in making a polemic about the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing passionate discourse and slogans,” he says. “So I tried not to repeat any of the discourse I heard growing up in Lebanon. That was a minefield.

“When I started writing and then shooting, I was not an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My approach was simpler. I looked at the screenplay and said, ‘Does it work as a story or not?’ Had I started analyzing it in terms of that conflict, I’d have screwed myself up. As a writer, I could do a very political film – but if the drama doesn’t hold, the people will walk out.

“Because it’s set in the Middle East, this was a difficult film – not just to write but to cast, to market. If I also have to carry the burden of sending a social message, that’s too much to ask. That’s not my job.”

Others, however, feel it is: Doueiri’s film has been banned in Lebanon because he portrays Israel without condemning it and because he filmed in Israel, using Israeli actors. The Arab League has also condemned and banned the film.

“They can’t agree what to do about the massacres in Syria – but for the first time in history, the Arab League made a unanimous decision to boycott ‘The Attack’,” Doueiri says with a rueful smile. “It’s pretty pathetic. It’s remnants of old regimes. No matter how much the West tries to portray the Arab world in a negative light, the Arab world does a better job of doing it to itself.”

After high school in Beirut, Doueiri knew he wanted to study film. His father wanted him to study in Paris (“Too much theory,” Doueiri says), but his mother thought he should go to college in the United States. He wound up going to school in San Diego, then started finding jobs in film, working his way up from being an electrician and a grip to his real goal: as an assistant cameraman.

In that role, he wound up doing a favor for a producer friend, taking a job working as assistant cameraman on a film that only paid him $50 a day: “Reservoir Dogs.” He wound up working on “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown,” before deciding to try his hand at directing: “I had stories to tell,” he says.

But he has nothing but praise for former boss Quentin Tarantino: “I’ve never worked with anyone as enthusiastic and fanatical about the filmmaking process as he is,” Doueiri says.

Doueiri is already working to line up another project for himself. Though he has a couple of scripts he’s written that are set in the Middle East, his agents are encouraging him to take a director-for-hire job in the U.S.

“I need a change,” he admits.

He just wishes writing came more easily to him: “I look at someone like Stephen King, who seems to always be putting out a book, or Woody Allen, who puts out a movie every year, and I’m very envious of those people,” he says. “It’s been a dream to write. Because screenwriting is the most important part.”

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