The Mystery of Sihem
by Sheerly Avni
Sep 10, 2012 | 891 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ziad Doueiri is no stranger to war. The director grew up in Beirut, where his mother ran a clandestine radio station protesting the Syrian occupation. The station was hidden two stories below a mosque, and he and his brother knew from an early age that absolute secrecy was essential to the safety and survival of their family. That tension is felt in his latest film, The Attack, a devastating account of the aftermath of a Tel Aviv suicide bombing, told from the point of view of the bomber’s stunned husband.

Even though he lived in America for nearly 20 years, honing his skills working behind the camera on several Quentin Tarantino films, Doueiri never let his homeland stray far from his thoughts. He drew on childhood memories for his critically lauded first feature film, the semi-autobiographical West Beirut (1999), and wrote his second screenplay, the charming coming-of-age story Lila Says (2004), with his wife, Lebanese screenwriter and former Le Soir correspondent Joelle Touma. In 2006, an American production company approached the couple to adapt L’Attentat, an acclaimed novel by Algerian author Yasmina Khadra.

Almost immediately, the same company that had hired them began to balk over the film’s controversial subject matter. Soon, Doueiri and Touma found themselves deep into the adaptation of a book to which they did not have the rights, let alone the financing. One American producer told Doueiri bluntly: “I can’t make this film because it is considered too pro-Palestinian for an American audience and too
pro-Israeli for Europeans.” It would take several years to recuperate the rights, find a new producer and raise the funds they needed.

Doueiri and Touma also struggled to convert the story to the screen. The novel is narrated by Amin Jaafari, an ambitious, happily married Arab surgeon whose comfortable life in Tel Aviv comes apart when he is called into his hospital the night following a suicide attack in a nearby café. Authorities have identified the bomber: Jaafari’s wife Sihem.  Stunned, Jaafari first seeks to deny and then, with almost as much futility, understand the secret life his wife had been leading for years. In the process he uncovers painful truths about his own blindness. The filmmakers also struggled to understand Sihem. How could they make her sympathetic, or even comprehensible, to viewers? “This is a woman who has everything,” Touma said. “Money, education, a loving husband. She is not a fanatic; she is not insane. She is a mystery.”

She also exists as a memory, which translates vividly in prose but is problematic in the visual medium of cinema. After multiple rewrites and flashback sequences that ended up on the cutting-room floor, Doueiri realized that the story belonged to Jaafari, not Sihem. His quest for the truth takes him deep into his past and his responsibility to the woman, and the country, he loved but never really knew. His will pay an unbearably high price for his years of denial.

“Denial is something you find everywhere in the Middle East,” said Doueiri, “on all sides. Our goal was never to please either side, but to tell the story as truthfully and simply as we could.” What’s most inspiring about The Attack is how it asks us to face the region’s impossible paradoxes through the prism of one man’s broken heart.   

Still more inspiring is how, after six years of struggle, the film was made by a cast and crew of Arabs and Jews working together, despite underlying tensions, a difficult production and a story that leaves questions for the viewer to answer. “Artists will always overcome their prejudices to make a movie they care about,” said Doueiri. “It is one of the blessings of cinema.”

THE ATTACK

Lebanon, 2012, 102m

Director: Ziad Doueiri

Writers: Ziad Doueiri and Joelle Touma

Based on a novel by Yasmina Khadra
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