Interview with Ziad Doueiri, the director of The Attack

June 20, 2013 | By Laura Pertuy with Oleg Sulkin

On the occasion of the US release of the French coproduction The Attack (L’Attentat), we interviewed the Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, whose film, though rewarded with many awards (especially at COLCOA French Film Festival) at premieres around the world, has been banned from his own country.

Can you tell us about the genesis of the project ?

The original story from the Algerian author Yasmina Khadra was very compelling. We changed some things. The book features a lot of personal thoughts in the first person, especially from Amin, the main character, with his view of the world, his past… We wondered if we should put a voice-over in the film. But in the end, we tried to put enough drama in the scenes to allow the spectators to be with this guy for every single scene. Of course, when you make a movie, you always lose something (for instance the passages when Amin talks about his past, his idealism, the way he was raised) but you also gain something else. For instance, in the book, Amin’s wife is described as naïve. Yasmina Khadra is an idealist, he believes women are untouchable angels but I think they are as twisted and manipulative as men. I argued with him about that. Women who commit suicide-bombings cannot be that nice… We tried to create a profile for Amin’s wife with a lot of different explanations which are not in the book. We also changed the end of the story. After the first screening, Khadra was very upset. It took him three screenings to adjust to it but now he loves the movie.

It is quite a tough subject. What convinced you to get involved in directing it ?

I didn’t want to do this movie at the beginning. I asked myself if I wanted to do a serious movie and I actually wanted something on the lighter side. I was contacted by my agent in NYC and I didn’t want to deal with something that serious. Also, we knew it was going to be hard to finance… People don’t necessarily want to go see films tackling these kinds of topics. But I read the book and was in awe of this story. It spoke to me personally…We began working on it in 2006 but the war in Lebanon started two weeks later. I was filled with doubts. Did I really want to make a movie while reality was being broadcasted live 24/7 ?

Can you tell us about the writing process for the plot?

The writing process was complex. There’s a hidden voice inside of you when you’re writing. I didn’t do this movie to convey a message about the Middle-East, but because I though the story was excellent. It’s an organic process: you sit down and think about the way you’re going to make this scene great. It’s like a salad in your brain, its pure instinct.

How did you work on the places – both in Israel and in the West Bank - where the scenes were filmed ?

I wanted to show Amin as a man of science: he is a doctor and lives in a very modern town. Tel Aviv doesn’t really look like this; there is also a trashy part but we picked the high angle views and the big structures to make it look very sophisticated. When Amin goes to Nablus in Palestine, we wanted to show the contrast since he’s going back to his past, his roots. For Tel Aviv, we added a greenish tint to show its coldness and the western quality it possesses, whereas we worked with warmer colours to show how Arabs are said to be; warm and chaotic !

Who are you inspired by ?

My real inspiration is Ron Fricke, I’m fascinated by his technique. I try to imitate him in every film that I do - it never works ! I also love Terrence Malick. He is such a fantastic director, probably the best American director today. The Tree of Life almost fucked me up because I was very influenced by it for The Attack. In late 2012, I was preparing The Attack and I saw this movie 7 or 8 times in a row. It took hold of my vision of The Attack, I started composing the film like The Tree of Life. It would have screwed my movie.

The Attack cannot be shown in the Middle-East and can’t be nominated for the Academy Awards because Lebanon banned it. Can you provide us with an update on the situation ?

As of now, only the two main actors have seen the film. I’m trying to lobby the government’s decision but I don’t want to get myself in anymore trouble. I broke the law. However, The Attack will be screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Were there things you censored because of the religious and political tensions in the Middle-East ?

There’s nothing I would have wanted to censor. I just focused on creating a compelling story. Some people are going to get pissed off anyway. I wanted to show the conflict is not a religious one. As Western people, we expect bombers to be Muslims with beards but I wanted to create a little surprise that comes totally unexpected. There are a lot of Christians in the Middle-East and they are very involved in the Palestinian struggle, more than Muslims. I was strolling in Nablus and unexpectedly found a small orthodox 11th century church ! I called the scriptwriter in Beirut and asked if we could make the supposed “mentor” character Christian. I think the Palestinian struggle is not a religious one.

The movie tackles the question of what “home” is. What does it mean to you ?

I don’t have a home right now. I lived in Beirut, Los Angeles and Paris…I cannot commit myself to any culture.

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