Ziad Doueiri’s latest film has garnered praise for its balanced portrayal of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. True, if you go into the theater with any preconceptions about the situation in the Middle East, one way or the other, you won’t find them challenged in any meaningful way. On the other hand, if you know nothing of Palestinian history, you will leave with only a vague idea that Israelis and Arabs can’t get along, and that this manifests in the latter blowing themselves up.
This is the meaning of “balance” in describing Israeli occupation; while the details in The Attack are more or less historically accurate, the film, as with all effective propaganda, is a 104-minute exercise in lying by omission.
In those 104 minutes, the word “Palestinian” is used exactly twice. This is curious for a movie that ostensibly revolves around identity. Perhaps that’s the point: our hero, Amir (Ali Suliman), is a fully assimilated Palestinian surgeon living in Tel Aviv. His friends are exclusively Israeli Jews, and consequently he speaks more Hebrew than Arabic. He refers to himself only as an Arab, between assurances that he does not see his gracious colleagues as his enemies. Having all but cleansed himself of his Palestinian identity, Amir strives to be one of the Israelis.
To borrow a phrase from Paul Mooney, his “Arab wake-up call” comes in the form of a suicide bombing that claims the lives of seventeen Israelis, eleven of whom are children. When the police accuse his wife, Siham (Reymond Amsalem), of carrying out the attack, Amir finds himself outcast. Guilty by association, he goes at once from being a celebrated doctor to a pariah, reviled by all but his closest friends. He isn’t one of them after all.
What follows is a quest to uncover the truth about his wife’s guilt or innocence. Absorbed in his righteous horror at the child-killing brutality of the attack, Amir refuses to believe Siham could be responsible. He only hits dead ends along the way, and begins to wonder if he ever really knew her at all. But if Amir is neither Israeli nor Palestinian, who is he? How can he have ever known his wife if he doesn’t even know himself?
One would think a film that purports to show both sides would explore suicide bombers’ motivations for resorting to something so horrific, but it doesn’t. Throwing out, in turns, terms like “terrorist,” “child-killer,” and “psychopath,” The Attack implies that suicide bombers are inexplicably deranged, and so their reasons can never be known.
Apparently, this was intentional. “We don’t give it an explanation,” Doueiri tells Word and Film. “What could motivate a chick to go blow herself up? You don’t blow yourself up because of the cause. But to go kill kids and yourself, there is more psychology in it. We started coming up with other explanations, like what if she’s bipolar?”
Mental health may well play a role in suicide bombings, but devoid of context, psychology is a poor lens for bringing their causes into focus. Why would a Palestinian commit such a desperate act, but not an Israeli? Absent any other factors, one can only conclude that some cultures are inherently pathological. Balance, indeed.
The second half of the film takes place in Amir’s hometown, Nablus, which he hasn’t visited since 1991. The revelation that he grew up in the West Bank (or “the territories,” as its inhabitants refer to it in the film) seems hard to believe. How could someone born under occupation assimilate into his oppressors’ culture and so easily forget his roots? The answer becomes clear when we are shown that The Attack’s Nablus is a dreary town dominated by religious extremists frothing at the mouth and ranting about infidels. Among the few relatable inhabitants of this creepy village is Amir’s niece Faten (Ruba Salameh), who wants nothing but to leave. Who wouldn’t?
Muslim fundamentalists do exist in Palestine. And suicide bombings have happened in Israel—though there hasn’t been one in five years. No mention is made of settlements encroaching on Palestinan land, of armored bulldozers razing houses with their owners’ possessions still inside, or that far more Palestinians than Israelis are killed each year, including children. Lest we be completely misled, Doueiri does throw in some token shots of the Wall, and very briefly shows Israeli soldiers belligerently harassing Palestinians at a checkpoint. But this is the full extent to which the film portrays Israeli occupation.
In the climactic scene, when Amir confronts the mastermind behind the attack and demands an explanation, he and the audience are left wanting. We learn almost nothing about Siham, and Amir’s identity crisis is unresolved. So, what’s the point? Apparently, that the animosity between Israelis and Palestinians is nothing but an irreconcilable, incomprehensible conflict—but it does provide a thrilling backdrop to a romantic mystery that is palatable to the status quo. Roll credits.
The Attack is a film about deception, about not knowing, and it’s a fitting theme. Its greatest disservice to the truth is in how it portrays victimhood. Israeli victims scream in pain and bleed on operating tables while their horrified parents cry in the background. The only acknowledgement of violence from their side is a cryptic allusion to the 2002 massacre at the Jenin refugee camp, which the protagonist visits a decade after the fact. In Doueiri’s world, Palestinian victims are only rubble.
Yes, there are victims on both sides. But to uncover the truth, one must examine which victims are mourned, and which are rendered invisible.