War of Words: Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri knows something about 'The Insult'

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In light of Muslim-Arab response (specifically those who support the BDS movement) to Ziad Doueiri’s 2012 film The Attack, which was shot in Israel and employed Israeli actors and crew, coupled with their effort to ban his new drama The Insult from being shown in Lebanon (indeed, culminating in Doueiri’s arrest at the Beirut Airport), its current status is a great triumph for the Lebanese-born writer-director.

The Insult is a box-office hit in Lebanon and the powers-that-be have submitted the movie for Oscar consideration in the Best Foreign-Language Film category. Still, the love is not universal. Lebanese Christians are buying tickets in droves, but the picture is virtually audience-free in Lebanon’s Muslim communities and continues to be embargoed in Jordan, Palestine and countries throughout the Persian Gulf, says Doueiri. The director met with me in a conference room at Cohen Media Group, the film’s New York-based distributor (and one of its producers too), which also released The Attack in the U.S.

Throughout the writing, shooting and financing process, Doueiri and his writing partner (and ex-wife) Joelle Touma worried about the film’s fate—despite its script approval by the government. No film in Lebanon is green-lighted without it.

“We were always afraid that once they saw it, they would not allow it to be released and if that happened investors wouldn’t make their money, it wouldn’t be shown elsewhere and it certainly wouldn’t be presented for Oscar consideration,” says the intense, 54-year-old filmmaker, who sports a shock of curly salt-and-pepper hair and speaks in an accent that is at once Middle Eastern and French. He now lives in Paris.

“The government faced a lot of challenges from left-wing liberals who were still thinking about The Attack, and accused me of being a traitor, attempting to normalize relations with Israel,” he continues. “It doesn’t take much for someone to be accused of trying to normalize relations with Israel. My accusers never saw The Insult, but that didn’t stop them from wanting it banned. The government felt forced to listen to them. It took them three months, but they finally said, ‘Screw it,’ and agreed to release the film and ultimately present it for Oscar consideration.”

This past September, events unfolded quickly. Doueiri was arrested at the airport on Sept. 10 and released the following day, and three days later the film was shown in Lebanon. “That was smart,” he observes. “We had just won an award at the Venice Film Festival and the Lebanese government didn’t want to embarrass itself any further.”

Set against a backdrop of historic conflict between Lebanese Christians and Muslims, The Insult explores what happens when Yasser (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian refugee working as a contractor, offends—leveling a vulgarity—Tony (Adel Karam), a Lebanese Christian mechanic who demands an apology that is not forthcoming, thus leading to a court showdown and a media circus, which mesmerizes, almost paralyzes, the country. The film marries absurdist comic elements with a tragic history that casts a long shadow.

Doueiri admits that his major challenge was avoiding simple-minded polemics, “sound-bites and messages,” he says. “Audiences don’t want messages. They want a story. Though my stories are set against complex political backgrounds, they are all personal, simple stories that give the actors a chance to flesh out the characters. Of course, it’s going to have more nuanced meaning in Lebanon, but I believe it will talk to people across the globe.

“In Spain, I was told it had resonance because of the Spanish conflict with the Catalonians who wanted to secede from Spain,” he continues. “In India, the audience felt the movie could just as easily be about their conflict between Hindus and Muslims. And in America, it should have meaning because of the current divides. One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, a statue of Robert E. Lee still causes such conflict.”

Doueiri tries to give each side its day in court (literally), but in the end he says he most identifies with the Christian lawyer (Camille Salameh) who is defending Tony, despite the former’s manipulative style; perhaps not unexpectedly, Doueiri favors the Christian plaintiff, viewing him as the underdog, a political stance that defies the received wisdom in his world.

It’s a position all the more remarkable given his own personal background. Thirty years ago, he was sympathetic to the Palestinians in Lebanon (there is a huge refugee population there) and Palestine. He comes from a left-leaning, non-observant Muslim home where his mother hung the Palestinian flag above the Lebanese flag.

“I was raised to hate Christians and Jews,” he says. “The Christians were my enemies because they dealt with Jews. I believed they were traitors and Zionist collaborators. But as I grew older, I traveled, I went to France, the United States, I attended film school at San Diego State University. I became more mature. I’ve always been curious to understand the Christian Lebanese and Jewish narratives. I listened. And when you talk with people face-to-face, suddenly the wall of prejudice falls away. That’s not true for everybody. But it was for me.”

Doueiri saw the conflict between Lebanese Muslims and Christians in a new light, suggesting that the Palestinian refugees and their supporters were in fact the occupiers in Lebanon, certainly in the ’70s. In more than a few instances, communities of Christians were slaughtered, their homes destroyed thanks to Palestinian-led massacres. The film cites one such defining example.

As an artist, Doueiri is appalled that anyone would feel free to dictate to him where he will shoot a movie or the story he is allowed to tell. And that’s precisely what happened—resulting in a cultural firestorm—when he shot and then unveiled The Attack, a film that incorporated Hebrew and Arabic, and zeroed in on an assimilated Palestinian surgeon (Ali Suliman) living in Tel Aviv who discovers to his utter shock and horror that his wife (Reymonde Amsellem) is a suicide bomber.

Despite a long and loving marriage, he knows nothing of her political views or sentiments. The film is neither pro- nor anti-Israeli. In the end it’s a deeply personal story about a man’s efforts to learn the truth—anything of consequence—about his late wife, becoming himself a social pariah, totally alone, homeless in Israel and among the Palestinians.  

Asked what caused the greater source of contention, the locale of the film or its story, Doueiri pauses for a long, thoughtful moment. “Both,” he answers. “The story was problematic because of its ambivalence. In the Palestinian world, you cannot be ambivalent. They don’t accept it at all.”

At the moment he is especially enraged at the Palestinian Authority. Actor Kamel El Basha—a Palestinian from Jerusalem who spent two years in an Israeli jail—won the Best Actor Award at last year’s Venice Film Festival, making him the first Palestinian Arab to earn that honor. Further, it was his first screen acting gig.

“He was so excited to return to Jerusalem and show the film in Ramallah,” Doueiri recalls. “We were willing to give them the film for free. But the BDS waged a nasty battle and convinced the Palestinian Authority to boycott the film. They pulled it out and that hurts me a lot. The film puts Palestinians on a good world stage. It shows they have artists who can go overseas and excel, win a big award. It proves to the world that Palestinians are educated, cultured, open-minded and that they deserve peace. The film talks about reconciliation. So, what do they do? Just the opposite. How smart is that? Kamel was pissed off. He cried. No matter how pro-Palestinian you may be, this is so unacceptable.”

Attempting to put that road bump behind him, Doueiri is now looking forward to seeing his film released internationally and, more important, the conversation it generates. And then, of course, maybe even an Oscar nod. He is busy promoting the film, and then plans to take some time off to spend with his young daughter.

An idea for another film is gestating, but Doueiri is not prepared to talk about it yet, short of saying he wants to write it in English. Interestingly enough, American filmmakers are his greatest artistic mentors, he says, specifically citing Ron Fricke and his stunning visual style in films that have neither dialogue nor conventional narratives. He also loves Sidney Lumet, “who was strong on themes that questioned the establishment. That speaks to me as someone who grew up in a place that’s oppressive. And he knew how to direct actors.”