The Middle East Institute will be screening Ziad Doueiri's The Insult at Georgetown University in Washington, DC on January 12. Get your tickets here!
Ziad Doueiri is no stranger to controversy. The West Beirut Lebanese director drew widespread condemnation from Arab circuits when he decided to shoot his third feature, The Attack (2011), in Israel while casting an Israeli actress (Reymonde Amsellem) in the role of a Palestinian suicide bomber. The Attack controversy would, however, prove to be a blip when compared to the storming reception that met his latest feature, The Insult; a brash, Hollywoodish courtroom drama that partially attempts to shed a light on the Palestinian complicity in the Lebanese Civil War.
This year’s highest grossing Lebanese film, The Insult, focuses on a minor clash between a Christian mechanic (Adel Karam) and a Palestinian foreman (Kamel El Basha, who won the acting award at the Venice Film Fest in September) that quickly spirals into a nationwide standoff between the country’s Christian population and the Palestinian minority. The line separating the victims from the culprits becomes increasingly blurred as the story moves forward, and ultimately, no one is left blameless.
At the heart of the film, and the main reason for the heated discussions it has generated to date, is Damour—the 1975 massacre perpetuated by the Palestine Liberation Organization in the Maronite Christian town, killing hundreds of civilians.
By casting the Christians in the role of the victims—a role that has been almost exclusively occupied by the Palestinians via the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982—Doueiri has a created a picture that challenges the popular civil war narrative. Predictably, Doueiri’s provocation did not sit well with various factions.
In September, Doueiri was detained at Beirut’s international airport and questioned by a military tribunal for several hours about The Attack (the Paris-based Doueiri has been several times in and out of Lebanon since the film’s release). In October, a group of Palestinian activists, led by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement, forced Ramallah’s Days of Cinema festival to cancel The Insult screening and accused the director of “normalization” with Israel. Meanwhile, a number artists and critics from across the Arab world—Palestinian, Lebanese, Egyptian—have vehemently attacked the film, calling it a one-sided Christian-propaganda and a revisionist history lesson.
Whether its treatment of Palestinians is unbalanced or if it is, in fact, an unbiased treatment of one of a seldom discussed chapter of the war, is up for viewers to decide when The Insult begins its U.S. commercial release next month.
In the following interview conducted over the phone last month, Doueiri details the genesis of The Insult; his reaction towards the antagonistic Palestinian reception; and his response regarding the accusation of impartiality.
Joseph Fahim: The Insult is your first Lebanese film in nearly 20 years. Why did it take you that long to return to Lebanon? And how did the idea of the movie come about?
Ziad Doueiri: My absence was not intentional. I had a project called Man in the Middle that I wanted to do in Lebanon for quite a while, but given how expensive it is, I couldn’t find the required finances. After The Attack was banned in Lebanon, I didn’t want to go back; I felt I no longer belong there. The Insult, in many ways, was a response to those who boycotted The Attack—that’s how it came about.
For the longest time, I’ve been contemplating how do I perceive both the Palestinian and Lebanese forces. I grew up in a very left-wing pro-Palestinian family; the Christians and those who “collaborated with the Israelis” were considered the ultimate enemy. We threw rice in celebration when [Lebanese Forces militia leader] Bashir Gemayel was assassinated, and I used to say a good Christian is the dead Christian. As time went by, I started questioning these ideas and becoming friends with some of the people from the Christian camp. Most people who worked in West Beirut were Christians—for them it was normal, but for me it wasn’t. It took me a while to get to use to sitting side-by-side with the Christians of East Beirut. Then I fell in love with a Christian woman (Doueiri’s ex-wife and The Insult co-writer, Joelle Touma) and all this prompted to see what was happening on the other side; to inspect what they went through.
I always believed that Christians in the civil war never suffered, and that only us, Muslims, suffered. This was the myth I grew up with, but then I realized that Christians did suffer as much as we did. As an artist, it’s your moral duty to try to understand the other side, and that’s also where The Insult came from. While writing, me and Joelle reversed roles: I wrote the dialogue of the Christian right-wing, while she wrote the Palestinian perspective.
The strength of the movie, in my opinion, is that works on different layers. It’s not just a response to the B.D.S. and their hostile campaign against me, it’s also about the injustices done to the Palestinians; it’s about the Christians who have been sidetracked and stigmatized; it’s about freedom of speech in Lebanon…it’s about many things.
JF: The unavoidable question that pops up in every discussion about the film is this: since you chose to focus on the Damour massacre, why didn’t you tackle the corresponding atrocities done to the Palestinians? Some have accused you that by solely concentrating on Damour, you have been partial to the Christian plight.
ZD: When we talk about Sabra and Shatila, do people question the massacres that came before it?
ZD: Then why should I talk about the massacres that preceded Damour? My film is not about Tel al-Zaatar or Nabaa or any of the massacres that happened in the mountains. This film is about the story of one man, Tony Hanna (the Christian mechanic) who lived through it all.
Why is Sabra and Shatila considered to be the mother of all massacres? In my view, Sabra and Shatila is as tragic as the other massacres. Women, men and children were massacred in Sabra and Shatila and the same exact thing happened in Damour. In the former, the death toll is estimated to be between 800 and 2000, we don’t know exactly. In the latter, it was 550. Does the 500 difference make Damour less tragic? Why should there be a monopoly on suffering?
JF: Do you think censorship is increasing in the Arab World?
ZD: Certainly. When I grew up in the ‘70ies, there was very little censorship; there were porn movies playing in Beirut at the time. Censorship comes along to protect their regimes, and that’s what’s happening now. The Attack was actually permitted by the state. After what happened with it though, I had a lot of doubt they would pass it. But they did, without changing a single comma. The General Security did, however, state that they must run it by “the committee.” Apparently, when it comes to sex or gay-related stuff, the General Security makes a quick decision, because it’s easy to censor those scenes. When it comes to sensitives topics like those in The Insult, they refrain from taking responsibility, so they refer the films to this “committee.” This committee is made up of members of the civil society and the government; it includes a distributor, an academic, a priest, an imam, a minister, an MP…etc. The committee’s decision allows the State Security to avoid responsibility. That being said, I find the government to be surprisingly lenient on occasion; at the same time, I don’t think the government should have a say in being lenient or not. Censorship should be removed altogether.
JF: What happened with the Days of Cinema in Ramallah?
ZD: The festival requested the film a month prior and wanted Kamel al-Basha to present the film. Typically, the B.D.S. started getting excited. They propagated a bunch of lies about me. The mayor of Ramallah caved in to their boycott calls simply because he didn’t want problems. The B.D.S. tried to stop the film from getting released in Lebanon, they couldn’t. They tried to stop it from becoming Lebanon’s entry at the Oscars, they couldn’t. They tried to have me detained at the Beirut airport, but they couldn’t. They even tried to stop it from being screened at Carthage, but they also couldn’t. If the B.D.S. can prove that boycotting The Insult would liberate Palestine or harm Israel, I’m willing to make a public apology.
The B.D.S. don’t know where I come from. I come from a family that shed a lot of blood for Palestinians.
JF: How do you feel about now the Palestinian presence now in Lebanon?
ZD: I think they should be given the right to work and live and to own houses. They should’ve been given what every refugee in the world has been given years ago. It’s unfair that they have never been given residency. Maybe they shouldn’t be given the right to vote because Lebanon is very sensitive towards confessional balance. I’m against the fascism of the B.D.S. movement, but I can never be against the Palestinians in Lebanon.
JF: What did the experience of making The Insult teach you?
ZD: To stick to the truth. I was raised in a very courageous family that taught me not to be afraid; a family that was never afraid to express itself. My mom was a fighter in 1958. The Insult is my truth…that’s it.