Middle East

Lebanese film The Attack falls foul of ban on Israel links

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Media captionThe film tells the story of an Arab-Israeli surgeon in Tel Aviv who discovers that his wife is a suicide bomber

There is no shortage of coming attractions in the cinemas of Lebanon this summer. And there is something for everyone.

In the cool, dark, air-conditioned multiplexes of Beirut and beyond you will find posters advertising the super-hero status of The Wolverine alongside displays announcing the return of the Smurfs.

But there is one movie which is not coming soon - and is probably not coming at all.

There is to be no red-carpet, hometown premiere for the Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri's new offering The Attack - a tense and gripping drama set in the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Israel.

That is because the film was partly shot in Israel, with Israeli actors speaking in Hebrew and Arab actors in Arabic.

It gives the acting a gritty, authentic feel - and it also makes it a flagrant breach of a Lebanese law passed in 1955 which bans all contact with Israel and Israelis.

Ziad Doueiri, speaking to the BBC in New York, said he was not surprised that his film fell foul of Lebanese law, but he was frustrated.

"I was aware," he told us. "I knew eventually some people are going to scream and throw their arms up. But I'm a filmmaker. I take risks in order to do the film. It's not there to make a statement."

Journey of rediscovery

The 1955 boycott law has its roots in the Middle Eastern conflict around the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 - a way of carrying on a kind of economic war.

The effect is that at an official level, Lebanese institutions act as though Israel does not exist.

Lift the phone in Beirut and dial an Israeli number and one of two things will happen. You will either hear the engaged tone before you have even finished dialling the code, or you will eventually hear a kind of empty, electromechanical echo. But you will not get through.

If making a phone call to Israel is impossible, making a movie there is off the scale of official outrage.

Doueiri is especially irritated with the Arab League, which condemned the film after it was brought to their attention by the boycott campaigners.

"If you look at the Arab world today, what's going on in Syria, all the horrific crime and horrific rape and use of chemical [weapons], the Arab League did not manage to have a single unified stance vis-a-vis Syria but they managed to unite and find a single voice to ban a movie," he says.

In The Attack, an Arab-Israeli doctor living and working successfully in Israel is taken on a shocking journey of rediscovery in his own life after his wife carries out a suicide bombing.

It is not partisan or strident in its style. And rather surprisingly it did not fall foul of the uniformed interior ministry censors who remain a powerful force in Lebanese life.

Their work is parodied by the Beirut-based SKeyes Foundation, which campaigns for freedom of information.

But even if it was the economic boycott rather than the censors' rules that led to the ban on Doueiri's film, the affair has focused more attention on the whole issue of whether governments have the right to decide what films their people can - and cannot - see.

It comes at a time when the spread of the internet is changing the context for censorship. You may not be able to phone Tel Aviv from Beirut for example, but you could probably Skype there if you wanted to.

And you may not be able to screen a film at the cinema, but you could probably download it from overseas.

"It's slipping because of the internet, but the censorship authorities are alive and kicking," Ayman Mhanna of SKeyes says. "Can you imagine that the same people who are in charge of stamping your passport when you arrive at Beirut airport can the next week be transferred to deciding whether a movie should be allowed or not? This is absolutely ridiculous."

Working together

There is no sign that the rules are going to change, but it is true that the world is changing around the rules.

Lebanon is businesslike and tech-savvy - it would be very surprising if you were not able to buy smuggled DVDs or watch illegal downloads of The Attack here before too long. Perhaps you already can.

I went to discuss the film with one of its stars, Israeli actor Uri Gavriel - you might recognise him as the blind prisoner in the one of the Batman movies. He appears in The Attack as a tough, shaven-headed police investigator and he agreed that it was a shame that Lebanese audiences will not see the film in cinemas.

That is not so much because of any message in the film itself, but rather because of how the whole project was put together.

He said simply: "First of all, we made something together, Israelis and Palestinians directed by a Lebanese. The movie shows that there are people here on both sides who can talk. We can work together and make art together. We can make a lot of things together under the political problems."

That at least is an encouraging thought - that even people who do not end up seeing The Attack can take away from it a positive lesson.

And of course we have yet to see how many copies manage to find their way around that economic boycott too.