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Interview: Ziad Doueiri Returns to Beirut with The Insult

A real-life incident that occurred in Ziad Doueiri’s life triggered the creation of his latest film, The Insult. What initially begins as a disagreement between two men over a water pipe slowly escalates into a courtroom drama and then into violence. The showdown that ensues turns into a national crisis.

Doueiri explains that he grew up in Lebanon where the right cause was the Palestinian cause, and it wasn’t until he moved to the USA that he did what had been taboo, considered the Christians, and told their story from that perspective.

The Insult takes place for the most part in a courtroom, familiar to Doueiri as he grew up in a legal family home. The performances are stellar and intense, with Camille Salamé as Wajidi, excellent as one of the dueling lawyers.

Doueiri and I met last week to talk briefly about the film and how he created Wadji’s dialogue in response to the BDS boycott against his work, stemming from his earlier film, The Attack. The BDP (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement accused Doueiri of normalizing relations with Israel and suggested that Doueiri had not yet apologized for making The Attack in Israel.

Much to Doueiri’s surprise, The Insult has been received with open arms by the Lebanese government who screened the film and have now submitted it for consideration in the Best Foreign Language category as Lebanon’s official entry.

This is the second time you’ve done a film set in Beirut. What made you want to revisit and tell this story?

I often ask myself that question. I don’t know if there’s one particular reason. It’s such a part of my past and was fermenting in my mind. It took an incident that happened to trigger the whole thing. It’s very similar to what you see in the film, that opening. I went home after the incident and it started to turn into this idea.

What if I take a simple incident and it spirals out of control? That’s how it is in Lebanon and I’ve always lived in that fear. I’ve witnessed it throughout my life. I’ve seen how things get out of control. There are many layers to the film. I have many flaws and have made many mistakes. I always hold on to fairness and it’s something I pay attention to.

Those two people are asking for fairness. One wants to seek justice. The other guy doesn’t believe in it and those aren’t foreign concepts to me. It’s what I was exposed to even as a child. I’ve witnessed a lot of things since then. My mother is a lawyer and I also grew up in a legal family. There’s also the American side to me which is wanting to seek justice on film in the style of a courtroom drama. I haven’t been able to put my finger on just one thing, it’s truly a variation of things.

Lebanon is a country filled with conflict and that gives you a lot of material to write about.

I like how you explore the different sides of the issue in the film.

If you ask me to have written the film fifteen years ago, it would have been something completely different. It has evolved since then. I take sides in the film and I’m not objective, it just happens that I’m giving both points of view. The Middle East has various points of view. Growing up, I didn’t think that my enemy had a narrative and as time passes, I realized each side has a narrative.

Most of the dialogue that we see from the lawyer was just a reaction to the BDS movement when they boycotted my previous film. I actually rewrote the dialogue in order to attack the BDS movement because they have not been fair and they’ve actually been very vicious. The dialogue that I gave Wajdi is a response to that boycott. I didn’t agree to it and I thought they went too far and were almost behaving like fascists. I don’t believe in what they’re saying and what they do and they waged this battle against me.

What about how people have reacted to this? You were able to shoot in Lebanon?

The film is number one in Lebanon in spite of the boycott. Most of that came from the Muslims. When you label someone as a Zionist, mainly it’s the Muslim community that takes it personally. Lebanon is so complicated to explain — Why the Christians? Why the Muslims? Who are the Left Wings? The film has been well received because I tapped into the untappable thing. The Christian community has remained taboo. In their past they’ve been accused of collaborating with Israel. Imagine being in America or France and you’re labeled a collaborator or anti-Semite. The Christian right community has been stigmatized because the political parties at that time has dealt with the Israelis to get rid of the Palestinians.

Since then, no one has really spoken about anything from their perspective. I was someone who used that notion that the Palestinian cause was the mother of all causes. I didn’t see the other side. I grew up in a very left wing household who believed the Palestinian Cause was the ultimate cause. The Christian perspective had no point of view and it was time, having emigrated to the USA, to tell their story.

The move allowed me to look at it from this different perspective. I started doing research and I wrote it with Joelle Touma who comes from a right wing family and she grew up in the “enemy camp.” When we started writing together, I proposed she write the scenes in the defense of the Palestinian and I wrote the scenes in defense of the Christians. It was to show the other perspectives. The film was so well received. We showed it in Spain and I was curious about their reaction.

Spain went through a Civil war in 1975 and when Franco died the page was turned quickly, but the healing process never took off. They identified the need for dialogue and reconciliation.

I liked the idea of reconciliation in the film. The times have changed since you last shot there.

The process of making the film was simple. Joelle and I knew the material so well because we lived there. The shooting and finance came so quickly.

We started having problems with the BDS and that’s where the obstacles started. Our screenplay was solid and we were set. Making it was such a great experience and I knew what I wanted to tell the actors. I knew all the layers behind the dialogue.

The difficulty came with the release of the film. I had doubts about the Lebanese government screening the film and releasing it, so you can imagine my surprise when they held eight screenings of the film for the government.

They selected it for the Oscars as their official Foreign language submission.

I’m so happy with the film and I tell myself I hope I can do better next time. Joelle and I felt, and I say this with modesty, very happy with the way the film turned out.