x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 November 2017

Ziad Doueiri’s new film The Insult is a metaphor for the fault lines that scar Lebanon

The film­maker and his co-writ­er, Joelle Touma, were go­ing through a di­vorce while writ­ing the film, which no doubt helped give a sharp­ness and en­ergy to the con­fron­ta­tions be­tween the characters

Adel Karam of The Insult. Courtesy Venice International Film Festival
Adel Karam of The Insult. Courtesy Venice International Film Festival

Words can hurt and words can heal. In the Leb­a­nese ­film­maker Ziad Doueiri’s thrill­ing new court­room dra­ma, The ­In­sult, they do both.

The film grew out of a real in­ci­dent three years ago in­volv­ing Doueiri, what he calls his “hurt­ful mouth”. It digs

into the sect­ar­ian re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal fault lines that still exist in Leb­a­non, al­most 30 years af­ter the end of the coun­try’s bloody civ­il war.

Talk­ing last week dur­ing the Ven­ice Film Fes­ti­val, where The In­sult is com­pet­ing for the Gold­en Lion, Doueiri re­calls wat­ering plants on a bal­cony in Bei­rut when some­one swore at him from the street be­low. “I leaned over the bal­cony and said, ‘Why are you in­sulting me?’ and he said, ‘Be­cause your wa­ter’s fall­ing on me.’ I no­ticed from his ac­cent that he was Pal­es­tin­ian and I said what you should nev­er say to a Pal­es­tin­ian … I wanted to hurt him as much as pos­sible, and I suc­ceed­ed.”

Doueiri apolo­gised – “He couldn’t even look me in the eye. He was very, very hurt”. In the film, his words (unprintable here) are spat out by Toni (Adel Karam), a Leb­a­nese right-wing Chris­tian car mech­an­ic, to­wards Yas­ser (Ka­mel El Ba­sha), a Pal­es­tin­ian con­struc­tion work­er who fixed his il­le­gal wa­ter pipe, af­ter the Pal­es­tin­ian re­fuses to apo­lo­gise for in­sulting him. There fol­lows an escal­at­ing ar­gu­ment that be­gins ver­bal­ly, then turns phys­ic­al­ly vi­o­lent and ends up in court as a case that grips the pub­lic, ex­plo­sive­ly split­ting opin­ion along lines that ­ex­pose the sim­mering ten­sions in Leb­a­nese so­ci­ety.

“In the Mid­dle East, you know how we are,” says Doueiri. “We are like a pow­der-keg, waiting for a small spark.”

The film­maker and his co-writ­er, Joelle Touma, were go­ing through a di­vorce while writ­ing the film, which no doubt helped give a sharp­ness and en­ergy to the con­fron­ta­tions be­tween the characters Toni and Yas­ser, and be­tween their re­spect­ive law­yers.

The In­sult doesn’t take sides, though, and like their pre­vi­ous film, The At­tack, a­bout the fall-out from a sui­cide bombing in Tel Aviv, it shows great em­pathy by ac­knowl­edg­ing the hurt and trau­ma that un­der­lie its an­tag­o­nists. This is im­pres­sive giv­en Doueiri’s back­ground.

Born in 1963, in Bei­rut, he grew up in a sec­u­lar Mus­lim fam­ily with par­ents who “joined the re­sist­ance … a left-wing po­lit­i­cal move­ment that total­ly ded­i­cated them­selves to the lib­er­ation of Pal­es­tine. That’s how my par­ents were. They car­ried the Pal­es­tin­ian flag like it’s God,” he says. “We grew up hat­ing those peo­ple [the Chris­tian mi­li­tias]. And when I say hat­ing them, it’s not like they were liv­ing very far away. They were liv­ing a­cross the street … a few me­tres away.”

In 1983, af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school, Doueiri moved to A­mer­i­ca to study cin­e­ma. When he re­turned 15 years lat­er, to make his first film, West Bei­rut, a­bout the civ­il war, he had gained some dis­tance.

“Time had passed by so you start to be­come curi­ous a­bout this per­son that you hat­ed so much,” he says. Learning to love rath­er than hate, he met and mar­ried Touma, a Leb­a­nese Chris­tian.

“In ’58 [dur­ing the Leb­a­non cri­sis], my mum car­ried weap­ons. Lit­eral­ly. And shot [guns],” says Doueiri. “So she [Touma] came from the camp [side] that my mum car­ried a weap­on against. She is the ul­ti­mate en­e­my.”

Ziad Doueiri, director of The Insult. Courtesy Venice International Film Festival
Ziad Doueiri, director of The Insult. Courtesy Venice International Film Festival

When Doueiri a­greed to have their daugh­ter bap­tised – “so she had both re­li­gions in her, al­though we’re not re­li­gious” – his moth­er re­fused to at­tend. “I used to want to burn ev­ery church when I was young and now I’m tak­ing my daugh­ter and bap­tis­ing her in one of the big­gest churches up in the moun­tains. My mum went cra­zy,” he says.

Doueiri’s moth­er, now 80 and still a law­yer, helped him with the le­gal as­pects of The In­sult’s story. But, giv­en her pro-­Pal­es­tin­ian lean­ings, she kept try­ing to push scenes in a dir­ec­tion fa­vour­ing Yas­ser.

“She’s an in­cred­i­ble wom­an but I hate her opin­ions,” Doueiri says, laugh­ing. “I fight with her all the time. I’m not that pro-Pal­es­tin­ian and ev­ery time we were study­ing a law for my screen­play, she would take that law and ma­nip­u­late it to fa­vour the Pal­es­tin­ian guy.”

He re­sist­ed over­ly sym­pa­this­ing with ei­ther char­ac­ter and in the film ac­tual­ly shows how his­tor­ic crimes against Chris­tians like Toni have often been de­lib­er­ate­ly hushed up, or for­got­ten a­bout, un­like, I sug­gest to Doueiri, the Sab­ra and Shatila mas­sacre.

“Exact­ly. Bravo,” he says.

“Sab­ra and Shatila be­came like this cru­ci­fix. It be­came un­touch­a­ble. Like the moth­er of all mas­sa­cres. And this is one of the things we are try­ing to talk a­bout in the film: no­body has ex­clu­siv­ity on suf­fering. My mum and dad al­ways thought the Pal­es­tin­ian trag­e­dy was the big­gest trag­e­dy and all other tra­ged­ies don’t exist. And now I am com­ing in the film and say­ing, ‘Wait a se­cond. Who said that only you guys have suf­fered? There are others suf­fering.’”

Doueiri ex­pects The In­sult to cre­ate a “huge” dis­cus­sion in Leb­a­non, where it will car­ry a dis­claim­er (a­greed to by the film­maker) say­ing the views ex­pressed in the mov­ie are not those of the gov­ern­ment, but in­sists this wasn’t part of his in­ten­tion.

“Will it open de­bate? Prob­a­bly. But it was not what we set out to do. Hon­est to God. If you start do­ing films just be­cause you want to pro­voke, you mess up your mov­ie.”

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