Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A love story nesting in political conflict

The debate about how Palestine and its people are represented, and by whom, is almost as bitter as the struggle for the land itself.

It stems from the decades-long advantage Israel and its European and American supporters enjoyed in narrating one side of the story at the expense of the other.

The question of perspective and representation has helped shape Palestinian feature film.

The land and its ghost are pervasive here. Stories of struggle are premised on loss. Migration stories assume a lingering sense of national belonging.

The work of ’48 Palestinian filmmakers tends to express ambivalence about an identity somehow both Palestinian and Israeli.

In a cinema is dominated by an aesthetic of absence, uprootedness and loss, Palestinian love stories tend to deploy cinematography that embraces the landscape.

Given this politicized cinematic discourse, it’s not unnatural that Palestinian artists scrutinize how their national struggle is used in non-Palestinians’ fictions. This partially explains the hornet’s nest of controversy around Ziad Doueiri’s “The Attack.”

Doueiri’s film charts a journey of discovery on the part of Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman).

A ’48 Palestinian, Jaafari is an eminent surgeon who has embraced assimilation within the bourgeois agnosticism of Tel Aviv. Married to Siham (Reymond Amsalem), a Christian from Nazareth, fluent in Hebrew and surrounded by adoring Jewish-Israeli friends and colleagues, Jaafari has shed the inconvenient baggage of his Palestinian Muslim heritage.

The film’s opening moments are an ad for normalization. At a ceremony awarding him the Israeli medical community’s highest honor, Jaafari admits in his acceptance speech that he once regarded Israelis as his enemies. Since then he’s been given a stake in the country, so now he regards Israel as a friend.

Soon afterward, he’s plunged back into mundane career realities, doing triage in the wake of a suicide bombing that’s claimed the lives of a dozen Israelis. He’s called back to the hospital in the middle of the night and asked to identify Siham’s corpse.

His grief is elevated to a higher pitch when Israeli intelligence informs him his wife wasn’t a victim of the bombing but its perpetrator. He’s interrogated, subjected to the sort of torture reserved for the state’s Arab citizens, and eventually released when it’s decided he wasn’t part of the plot.

Jaafari defends his wife’s innocence until he receives a note from Siham, posted from Nablus on the day of her death. The note compels him to return to the West Bank city of his birth to ask his family why Siham was there, not in Nazareth, as she’d told him.

He assumes that his wife was brainwashed by Sheikh Marwan – a popular local extremist who’s fond of remarks like, “Non-Muslims have no rights whatsoever.”

His efforts to confront Sheikh Marwan and uncover the details of how she became a suicide bomber prove unsuccessful. Though Marwan admires her act, he says he never met Siham.

Jaafari is able to find some answers, but they aren’t what he expects, nor do they come from the expected source. At the end of his journey, he is left utterly bereft.

Ziad Doueiri first feature, “West Beyrouth” (1998), was unique for bringing a U.S. filmmaking sensibility and technique to a story of Lebanon’s Civil War. Lebanese film-goers were delighted that a Lebanese director had made a movie about the Civil War that people actually wanted to watch.

This was a misreading. “West Beyrouth” is a coming-of-age tale shot through with a pair of love stories. It works as a film precisely because it doesn’t try to be “about” the Civil War. The conflict provides a convenient decor, amplifying a plot that has nothing to do with war as such.

Something similar can be said about “The Attack.” Based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Yasmina Khadra (aka Mohammed Moulessehoul), Doueiri’s new film is a love story nesting in political conflict.

Jaafari is a careerist of a species you can find anywhere, one so focussed on getting ahead that he takes his lover for granted and loses touch with her wants and needs.

Because the story is told from Amin’s perspective – his marriage is visible only via his flashbacks – the audience shares his inability to reconcile his memory of Siham with her final act.

This story has nothing to do with Israel’s settler-imperialist presence in Palestine. It just provides decor, and a lens to magnify the story’s emotional weight. As he’s a ’48 Palestinian, for instance, it’s logical that the careerist Amin would also be assimilated and pro-normalization.

The political story is secondary, yet it is easy to see the film as “pro-Israeli” because there is so much Hebrew dialogue with nice Israeli characters.

In the rump of the film that’s shot in Palestine, the landscape seems relatively flat compared to that of Tel Aviv and the Palestinian characters that people this terrain, including Jaafari’s family members, are less engaging than the Israelis.

In conversation after his film’s Middle East premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival, Doueiri said he had no intention of making a pro-Israeli film.

“I didn’t want to take a side for or against,” he said. “But the situation is already polarized.

“I shot in Tel Aviv because it’s very modern, very angular. When [Jaafari] returns to Nablus he goes back to the way things are in an Arabic town. I didn’t want to demean one city or the other. The story is much more nuanced than that.

“That’s the way the landscape is. I do include some Palestinian olive groves, but I don’t want to fall into the clich├ęs that we’ve seen dozens of time before.”

Though his best Israeli friend interprets his final choices as anti-Israeli, the film’s ending is distinct from Kadra’s original in that the guilt for Siham’s final act is lodged not in Israeli policy, but in the protagonist’s failures as a husband.

It would be easy to assume that the plot changes Doueiri and his co-writer Joelle Touma worked into their adaptation of Khadra’s novel had less to do with anti-Palestinian sentiment than a desire to have the film made and distributed in the U.S., its natural market.

Doueiri says he and Touma didn’t write the film with market considerations in mind.

“I didn’t make the film for an American audience, or for an Arab audience ... I wrote it the way i learned the craft in America. It’s pretty classical – three act structure, mid-point, twist, etc.

“I think that if the film attracts any interest in the Arab world it’s not because of the way it’s written but because of the subject matter, because I’m showing the Israeli perspective.

“You have to show the Israeli perspective, whether he’s the oppressive, racist, Zionist, whatever you want, you’re talking about fiction ...

“But to reinforce your protagonist’s perspective, you have to reinforce the antagonist’s perspective.

“I wanted to go a little further down, to show that even your enemy has a point of view.

“This script had a lot of opposition from the American Jewish producer.”

Jaafari’s final exchange with his wife returns to haunt him at the end of his journey.

The film opens here, with the Jaafaris standing at a bus station, embracing.

“Why are you crying?” he asks her.

“Because every time I leave you,” she replies, “a part of me dies.”

“The Attack” may be lacking in political sensitivity, but it does have a cruel symmetry about it.


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