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

Still of The Insult by Ziad Doueiri. Courtesy Ziad Doueiri
Powered by automated translation

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 Ziad Doueiri
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.”

Read more: