x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Crossing red lines

Feature Ziad Doueiri wants to make films that deal with what's untouchable in the US film industry - the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Roger Moukarzel / Minime Production
Roger Moukarzel / Minime Production

Ziad Doueiri wants to make films that deal with what's untouchable in the US film industry - the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie finds out why. "To talk about being a filmmaker, you've gotta have a big stack of films," says Ziad Doueiri. "When you've stacked up five, six, seven films, then you can talk. But until then, you can't. Or you'd just sound pretentious." It's late in the afternoon and Doueiri is sitting in a tiny cafe on the main drag that runs through the Beirut neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael. He lives and works around the corner from here and is thoroughly enamoured with the area, which is both densely residential and slightly industrial, with mechanics' shops jostling alongside vegetable sellers, hardware stores, designer boutiques, old-school family restaurants and newly opened cafes.

Doueiri, 46, recently became a father. He also recently stopped smoking. And he hasn't had a cup of coffee in 10 days. The new regime is killing him, he says, because he's in the middle of writing a screenplay. Although he is widely regarded as one of the best filmmakers of his generation, and has 20 years' experience in the industry - first working as a cameraman for the likes of Quentin Tarantino and then striking out on his own - he has made only two films. In 1998, he made his dazzling debut with West Beyrouth, a tender feature about two teenage boys coming of age during Lebanon's civil war, which earned him six awards, including the critics' prize at the Toronto film festival.

West Beyrouth put Lebanon on the international filmmaking map and, according to the scholar Lina Khatib, sparked a renaissance in Lebanese cinema by encouraging a new wave of directors and by bringing Lebanese audiences back into theatres to see one of their own after decades of little or no local production. But since then more than a decade has passed. In 2004, Doueiri completed his second feature, Lila Says, an atmospheric film about star-crossed lovers in Marseilles. In 2005 the film screened at Sundance, but it went on to take just $538,000 (Dh1.97 million) at box offices worldwide. In the past five years, nothing more has materialised.

So Doueiri is reluctant to refer to himself as a filmmaker. While this could be interpreted as false modesty, it is more likely to be a reflection of his frustration. If you look at all the projects he has worked on over the years, he should have made his five, six, seven films by now. And to bring that frustration into sharp relief, what should have been his most high-profile film to date - writing and directing the cinematic adaptation of Yasmina Khadra's novel The Attack - is falling apart in his hands.

The Attack is the second instalment in a trilogy of political thrillers. It tells the story of a man, a surgeon of Bedouin ancestry and an Arab citizen of Israel, who rises to the height of his profession, only to discover, on a day when his operating room is overflowing with the victims of a terrorist explosion, that it's his wife who's blown herself up and caused this carnage. The shock of this revelation cuts off any possibility of bereavement and sends him into a tailspin. Shunned by his colleagues, he throws himself into one perilous situation after another as he tries to identify who brainwashed his wife and how.

In 2005, Doueiri signed on with Focus Features, a division of Universal Studios, to adapt the film. Of course, there were a few points of contention. The studio wanted to do the film in English, while Doueiri thought it should be done in Arabic and Hebrew. The studio also floated the idea of casting Tom Hanks as the lead. "I said, 'Tom Hanks is a fantastic actor, and if he agrees to do the film, the budget will be much bigger, I'll be paid more, and it's better prestige for me,'" recalls Doueiri. "'But the film won't be authentic.'"

After the first meeting, both sides agreed to mull things over. "My main question was why do they want to do this movie? Because I was surprised," says Doueiri. "There's never been an American studio, ever, that's wanted to do a film that deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Doing films about Iraq is no problem any more. It's a taboo that's been broken. In America you can do any kind of film, there's no reservation, except for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's just a red line that producers don't want to touch, because it's a very loaded subject with red lines and parameters you can't cross. It's so deeply rooted in the American psyche not to deal with this subject. And this film deals with it."

Whatever the rationale, the deal was signed two days later. "They agreed not to use Tom Hanks," says Doueiri. "They agreed to do it in Arabic and Hebrew, and they agreed to do it with unknown actors, meaning unknown in America, so Palestinian and Israeli actors. And so, the writing began. Nine months later I finished the script. Then there was complete silence." Doueiri wrote the screenplay with his wife, Joelle Touma. "I considered it probably the best screenplay I'd written, because the book is very good. We went beyond it, and we tackled some things the book didn't tackle, but the book was already very good. So there was an incredible amount of mystery surrounding the studio's response. Did they like it? Did they not like it?"

Doueiri never got an answer. Eventually, the studio came back to him and said it wanted someone else to write the screenplay, but it still wanted him to direct. "Then, when the new screenplay came in, nobody wanted to produce it, because it was written from a very orientalist point of view. Every possible cliche about the region and the conflict found its way into the script." Doueiri didn't like it, but he stayed on board. "I was willing to start pre-production, and I thought that when push came to shove, I would sit down with them to discuss what didn't work in the screenplay. But I never got the chance because two months ago, they pulled out."

According to Nicole Anaejionu of the Focus Features press office, "The Attack is at a standstill and has been for a very long time." No one at the studio would comment on the reasons for putting the film on hold, whether it's due to financial considerations or political sensitivities or something else entirely. The Attack was slated to have a relatively low and seemingly recession-proof budget of $5 million (Dh18m), with Focus Features covering one half of the cost and Participant Media picking up the other. Founded in 2004, Participant has contributed to the financing of films such as Syriana and The Kite Runner, and last year signed a deal with Abu Dhabi's Imagenation to create a $250 million (Dh918m) film fund. The list of films produced by Focus Features, ranging from Brokeback Mountain to Milk, is strong in terms of controversial subject matter. And it was big news when the studio first acquired the film rights to The Attack back in 2006.

According to Doueiri, those rights expire in January 2010, but he is hoping that Focus will cancel the project altogether. If that happens, he adds, Jean Bréhat of France's 3B Productions, which financed West Beyrouth, will be keen to pick up the film, if Doueiri can extract the rights to the screenplay he wrote. "The good thing is that the fall of the project might be its salvation," he says, although it is tricky because the American producers own the rights to the script - even if they reject it and hire someone else to rewrite it.

Doueiri grew up in Lebanon, then went to school in the US. However much he loved it, he left in 2003. "After 20 years, I felt it was time for a change," he says. "I was missing my family and I was missing the chaos of Lebanon. You miss chaos when you live in extreme order. I came back to Beirut with a suitcase. I thought I'd stay a few months. Now it's been five years or more. If The Attack happens, I've thought maybe I'll go back. Now I'm in a constant state of comparing. I do nothing but compare Lebanon and America morning and night. I can never be fully integrated, neither there nor here. I'm a little bit of an outsider, and I'm rebellious."

The Attack is actually one of two screenplays that Doueiri is hoping to film. The other is Man In The Middle, about an American who works in the State Department and says to the President of the United States, "Give me two weeks and I'll make peace in the Middle East." If Doueiri really wants to reach America, why try it, over and over, with the one subject that seems, from his experience, to be off-limits? "Maybe I'm drawn to difficult subjects," he says. "Maybe I can't separate myself from the Middle East conflict because I grew up in Lebanon during the civil war. My teenage years were fraught by political setbacks. Then you go to the US, and you think you cut the umbilical cord. But hovering over you constantly are the same things: wars and failures. But it doesn't traumatise me.

"The Middle East is so charged up. It's not the bloodiest conflict in the world. It's not Congo. It's not Chechnya. But I've known 20 years of my life in full conflict. So I still talk about it. Not all the time. The screenplay I'm writing now, for example, has nothing to do with the Middle East." On that point, Doueiri argues that even a film like The Attack isn't entirely about the conflict or the region. It's also an intensely human drama. Sketching out the narrative arc of the film, he explains: "A man reaches the peak of his career in the first five minutes of the film. After another five minutes, his life goes down the drain. It's free fall into oblivion. And what he's dealing with is the ultimate betrayal. He thought he understood his wife but he did not. He provided everything for her but he never saw it coming. You could do this anywhere. It could be set in Nicaragua or Brazil. It's about being fooled. He fails to understand her. The onus is on him. In filmmaking, we love flawed characters," he says, finally owning up to the filmmaker he is.