How the Egypt Revolt Helped Make Tarantino Protege Ziad Doueiri's 'The Attack' a Hit

The filmmaker talks to THR about defying Islamists, risking prison and getting banned in 22 Arab countries.
Ziad Doueiri

Lebanese-American director Ziad Doueiri's film The Attack has been banned by 22 Arab nations, but the drama about a Palestinian ER doctor investigating the death of his wife, a suicide-bomber, is turning into a modest hit. And Doueiri credits the larger fight in Egypt and the Arab world between Islamists and modernizers for contributing to the film’s success.

Just three weeks after the movie’s release by indie distributor Cohen Media Group, Doueiri claims the movie, which cost $1.5 million to produce, is already in profit because its politically touchy subject matter gave its Arab backers cold feet. They relieved Doueiri of the $1.1 million they had invested in the film, the director says.

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"Qatar gave $700,000, Egypt $400,000," Doueiri tells The Hollywood Reporter. "They said, 'The subject is too controversial, take our name off it, keep the money.' Have you ever heard of a producer who says, 'Take this money, we don't want it back?'" The film, which opened in just three U.S. theaters June 21, saw its weekend gross increase by 399 percent when it expanded to 30 theaters on its second weekend and a further 43 percent on its third weekend when it played in 53 theaters. Its total gross now stands at $473,000.

Doueiri, a longtime camera operator for Quentin Tarantino, incurred Arab wrath by filming The Attack partly in Israel, with some Israeli actors. "A Beirut lawyer told me you could get three years in jail for setting foot in Israel, and a big fine," says Doueiri. On April 27, two months before The Attack's June 21 release, Doueiri announced that the film was banned by the Cairo-based Arab League. "The ban is bullshit because nobody gives a shit about the Arab League," says Doueiri, "a bogus, insignificant organization that never did anything and can never get their shit together or stand in unison. The Syrian government is doing a lot more atrocities than Israel did in 50 years, and is anybody complaining or boycotting Syrian film? Of course not. Israel remains the big taboo, the big evil in the Middle East, which is ridiculous."

Doueiri had an argument with his Egyptian producers. "They said, 'You should've shown the suffering of Palestinian kids, not just the Jews.' I said, 'It's not the story! It's about a woman who blows herself up in a [Tel Aviv] restaurant, and her husband is a doctor, a guy above religion, nationalities, above dogma. He wants to know the truth.'" Doueiri also debated with Hezbollah, Lebanon's powerful pro-Syrian, Iran-backed Islamist militant group. "We had this philosophical meeting for a couple hours. They said, 'You put your foot in the Zionist entity, but we're not gonna make a stink about it. We have a military battle against Israel, but we also have a cultural battle, a media battle, a political battle.'"

The Attack is squarely in the center of that battle. Through a mystery plot inspired by Sidney Lumet's The Verdict, Doueiri's film dramatizes the Islamic world's war of ideas. "The fight in Egypt and the Arab world is between those who want to return to the sharia [conservative Islamic law] versus those who want separation of church and state," says Doueiri. "Some of those handcuffs are falling apart. We thought the Islamists are going to arrive and all of these revolutions were in vain. And now Egypt shows that no, that’s not really going to happen. The old established mentality has been broken. And this is good, because you're shaking the foundation."

Despite its representative's vow not to oppose The Attack, Hezbollah's website posted an article in Arabic in which a legal expert says (according to a translation by The Times of Israel), “usually countries execute such people, whom they want to cleanse the nation of. Even European laws which prohibit executions allow them in the case of spies and traitors."

"My wife, Joelle Touma, who is also the co-screenwriter, wanted to do an unofficial screening [in Lebanon]," says the director, "a private one for friends and family and few journalists we know, and the word leaked out and the authorities threatened to arrest everyone who would attend that screening. Joelle didn't want to take the risk, so she canceled."

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Doueiri is winning the media battle over The Attack, which has raised the film’s potential awards profile (though he says Lebanon rejected his bid to submit it for the foreign Oscar). The Attack won raves at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, swept April's ColCoa French Film Festival in Los Angeles with three awards and won festival honors in San Sebastian, Morocco, Rome and Istanbul. "We're getting released in Europe, the U.S., Australia, Canada, Taiwan, Turkey -- Turks are a lot smarter than Morsi," says the filmmaker. "They finally decided to release it in Boston, where they hadn't wanted to because of the bombing." The week The Attack was released, Doueiri met with World War Z producer Jeremy Kleiner. "Kleiner -- he's liberal Jewish -- said, 'I've been such a fan of this film, what do you want to direct next? Look, you beat us in the press. The Attack has 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and we have only 67 percent.' I said, 'You take the credit, I'll take your audience.""

Doueiri's only regret is that he won't make much from the film even if The Attack goes on to bigger profits. "I wish I got any residuals. Unfortunately, I didn't have an agent." After Focus Features pulled its funding from the film's original $5.5 million budget in 2007, Doueiri waived his fee and cut the shoot to 15 days. "I just wanted to do the film," he says. Now he's poised to cash in on future films. "My agent is Richard Klubeck at UTA. I actually like him."

Doueiri also likes the current Egyptian uprising, but warns that patience is required. "Changes in Egypt are perturbing the whole Arab world. For filmmaking, it's going to open up doors. But not right away. Sometimes art is ahead of revolution. We expect changes really fast. We should not. Revolution takes time to ripen. In Poland it took 10 years. The world is going on a high-speed connection; the Arab revolution is still dial-up. So we have to give it a little time to download. Regimes come and go, but art endures."