JERUSALEM — Ziad Doueiri, the Lebanese filmmaker and a veteran of numerous Tarantino blockbusters, has never met the Iranian author and director Mohesen Makhmalbaf, yet the two virtually crossed paths this week in Israel.
At first glance, the filmmakers and the new movies they presented at the Jerusalem Film Festival seem to have little in common.
Doueiri's film, "The Attack," a gripping, tense drama, is a full-length feature based on a novel written by Yasmina Khadra, the pseudonym of Algerian author (and former army officer) Mohammed Moulessehoul, that was a 2008 bestseller in France.
Makhmalbaf's film, "The Gardner," is a poetic, evocative reverie combining elements of documentary and fiction, that looks at the life of a real man, a Papua-New Guinean gardener cultivating flowers at the Baha'i World Center, in Haifa.
But on closer inspection, it emerges that both films investigate an unknown, reviled group — in Doueiri's case, Israelis; in Makhmalbaf's, the Baha'i. Both films, shot in Israel, have been banned across the Muslim world. Both filmmakers have faced threats to their lives since their films' release.
"Very little else matters when you have filmmakers who are willing to risk their lives for their art," commented Alesia Weston, the director of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, that hosts the annual festival, in a conversation with GlobalPost. "We forget that there are artists who put themselves on the line for their vision. "
"The Attack" tells the story of Dr. Amin Jaafari, an Arab Israeli and a hotshot surgeon at a top Tel Aviv medical center. After barely escaping a terror attack he races to the hospital to save victims of the bombing, only to discover, several hours later, that his wife — secular, urbane, beloved, professionally successful — was the suicide bomber.
"It’s a great book," Doueiri says, that he couldn't get out of his head.
Growing up in Beirut, Doueiri remembers "knowing Israelis only from F-16s and bombings." But the story of an accomplished man who thought he knew himself, suddenly struggling to gain a new understanding of his identity and his place in the world, haunted him.
Asked why he shot the movie in Tel Aviv, which put him afoul of a Lebanese law against collaboration with Israel, Doueiri said "Given our hostile background, I had a curiosity to understand the other perspective. I was emotionally curious to understand what you are all about. And no other city looks like Tel Aviv. I needed that authenticity."
He spent 11 months filming in Tel Aviv.
Doueiri spoke at the film's Jerusalem premiere, at which he appeared as a spectral, Skype-induced face on a huge screen behind the cast and crew of his movie, who applauded him from the stage.
"I wish I could be there with you," he said, near tears, saying that "a very difficult legal issue" prevented him from attending in person.
Speaking to the BBC in New York, Doueiri said, "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."
Makhmalbaf, who lives in exile, has twice been targeted by the Iranian regime. The first time, while filming in Tajikistan, a member of his crew was killed and 20 were injured.
"I'm sure it's not making them happy, thinking 'Mohsen went to Israel,'" he said in conversation with GlobalPost, "but they are already very unhappy with me. What can I do? No one cares if I, as an individual, die. So the only thing that counts is giving life meaning."
As a teenager, Makhmalbaf spent four years in jail for demonstrating against the Shah. He was released at the moment of the Islamic revolution, only to realize, six months into the new regime, "that they are all the same. They were doing it all exactly the same."
He abandoned politics and took up radio, then writing (he is the author of 20 books) eventually arriving at film directing. Now, he says, "cinema is my weapon."
"The Gardner," is a quiet, colorful metaphorical meditation into the reasons for the persecution of the Baha'i in Iran. A 170-year-old religion founded in Persia, Baha'ism has provoked unparalleled persecution from the Ayatollah's regime.
Makhbalbaf, a self-described "agnostic filmmaker," says, "Even though I was born in Iran, and I didn't know anything about the Baha'i people. I didn't even know they were in jail. Why are they in jail? Why are they hated?"
"The Attack" posits that art itself, through which a man can make a humane film about his worst enemy, is redemptive. "The Gardner," says Makhmalbaf, should push people "to do something through culture, to give a message of peace and beautiful things."