Forty years after it started submitting films to the Oscars, Lebanon got its first nomination for best foreign language film. “The Insult,” which is playing in US theaters, is about a small incident between two people that spins way out of control. The drama is set in modern-day Lebanon, but the film is also about the country’s troubled past. Ziad Doueiri is the filmmaker, based in Paris.
He spoke with The World’s Marco Werman about what inspired his film and what makes it so provocative.
The World: I haven’t seen the film yet, but can you just give us the gist of the storyline of “The Insult?"
Ziad Doueiri: It's basically about a silly incident, a very very insignificant thing between two people — a mechanic and a plumber — that evolves from a verbal dispute. Instead of getting it resolved very quickly, it keeps getting worse and worse. It gets to be more complicated to the point that it goes beyond their control. It goes to a tribunal and becomes a courtroom drama. And then, it goes to the court of appeal, and then it gets even more complicated and it gets to the presidency. That’s when the country is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and we discover why those two people are at each other's throats. It's a film about unfinished business.
It’s set in present-day Lebanon, but it deals with the civil war in Lebanon, which started in 1975 and went on for 15 years. When you got started with this film, did you set out to do something about that civil war?
No, to tell the truth. “West Beirut” [Doueiri’s first film] was about my life and the civil war. This is not about the civil war. This is about my life today — about the other side. It's about 20 years later, way after the war and after I went to the States to work and live, and then I came back to Beirut and started re-examining certain things. It's not about history. It’s really about those two characters. But you can't cut the umbilical cord between the present and the past.
I understand that in schools in Lebanon, in a sense they are trying to break that umbilical cord. They don't even teach the history of the civil war because it's so contentious. Why is it still so difficult in Lebanon to talk about that war?
I think it's very difficult because there is no common idea about who is right and who's wrong. Everybody is pulling history on his side, so they can't seem to agree. As long as people don't sit down with each other face-to-face and dig up the past, we won't have a common denominator in Lebanon. There are certain words that, if any individual says them, it gets out of hand and could turn into real problems.
When I was a child, my dad used to tell me to be careful what you say. If you talk about religion, people are going to get upset. You talk about race, people are going to get upset. You talk about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, people will get very upset. And this idea came from my dad because one time I said something stupid. And he said, “You're crazy, completely out of your mind. This is how war starts.”
Tell us what you said. What was it?
I can’t say it on the radio. It's too offensive. It’s not that I'm censoring myself, I just don't want to be jailed again. It’s happened once already and I don't want to go again because of things like that.
Your caution is well-founded here. At the same time that your film was getting rave reviews, you returned to Lebanon and were promptly arrested. Can you tell us what happened?
Look, we don't want to make this interview about sensationalism, because some people tend to think that we're creating negative publicity just to attract the audience [for the new film]. I hate this. I did not ask for it, but since you are asking, I will give you some quick background about the whole thing.
The problem started a few years ago, when I did a film called “The Attack.” It's a film shot partly in Palestine and partly in Tel Aviv. Now, as a Lebanese citizen, you're not allowed to go to Tel Aviv but I went anyway. I did it because I believe that's where the film takes place. So, when I came back to Lebanon, there’s a group called the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement*. They're very active in Lebanon and they started campaigning against the film, accusing me of being, you know, just because I set a camera in Tel Aviv, they say, I’m an Israeli collaborator. They said I want normalization with Israel. And I said, “No, guys. Don’t start labeling me. I just want to do the movie.” But they kept up their campaign against my previous film. Eventually, the Lebanese government banned my film. And then, 22 Arab countries banned it. I was pissed. I was pissed as hell. I just did a movie. I'm not collaborating. I'm not spying. I just took a camera and shot there [in Tel Aviv]. A few years later, I went back to Lebanon in 2017 to do my new film, “The Insult.”
*Editors note: In the interest of balance, we reached out to a representative of the BDS movement. Their response can be seen below.
The government under [Lebanese Prime Minister] Saad Hariri was really fantastic. He said this film represents us, that the film is legitimate, that we love the movie and we're going to send it to the Oscars. So we won the Venice Award for Best Actor and on the way back to Beirut, I was very happy with the prize. But the BDS group told the Lebanese army that I was in violation of the law. I was and I knew it. But that was an old story. So, I was taken into custody. I was put in front of a military tribunal and the judge there looked at the whole case. And frankly, he just did not want to get into this mess, especially because I'm a US citizen and I'm a French citizen. It would have caused a little bit of a diplomatic incident. And you know, the Lebanese government had other things to worry about. So, I was acquitted. I was upset to be very honest. I was a bit scared because I have a daughter and I don't want to be arrested for a film. I think [BDS activists] have the right to hate the movie or to not see the movie. But you can't force other people not to see it.
It’s a sign of recognition for Lebanon when “The Insult” gets a nod at Venice, gets an Oscar nomination, but then the government in Lebanon also has a long list of banned films. What do you make of this contradiction?
Lebanon is a country of contradiction and paradox. You’re exactly right. You put your finger on it. Lebanon is torn between two different movements. There are people who just don't believe that we should boycott stuff, we should allow freedom of speech and freedom of information and freedom of moviemakers and writers and novelists. And then, there are people who believe that there are red lines you can't cross. This has been an ongoing battle for a long time. The fact that I went to Israel is not a sign that I agree with the occupation. There is an Israeli occupation and it's extremely unjust. I understand that. But if you want to fight the battle, go fight against the occupier, don't fight against people who take a tripod and stick it in Tel Aviv and shoot some film. I think it's just a silly thing. Just because I was curious about the other side does not make me a traitor, does not make me a collaborator. It's not right.
*Editor's note: We reached out for a response from Rania Masri, a representative with the Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel in Lebanon.
"These are not matters of opinion but matters of law," Masri wrote.
As Masri sees it, Doueiri was wrong when he decided to visit Israel without Lebanese government permission, hired an Israeli actor and paid taxes to the state of Israel.
"Traveling to Israel, and carrying on there as if Israel is a normal country that respects international law, is itself an acceptance of the occupation and apartheid nature of the state. There is an international BDS movement that calls for the academic, cultural, and economic boycott of Israel so long until the occupation ends, the apartheid and discriminatory set of laws against Palestinian citizens of Israel ends, and until all Palestinian refugees are allowed to return to their lands," Masri said.
Asked whether she supported a boycott of Doueiri's new film, Masri pointed to comments that Doueiri made in an interview with The Forward.
"The question thus becomes: should someone go see a film and support a director who has openly stated that he views occupation and apartheid as a 'detail,' a 'non-issue,' a director who has violated both a national and international campaign for justice and rather has portrayed himself (unjustifiably) as a victim?"
"For me personally, as a Lebanese, I take no 'pride' in his 'achievements.' I am ashamed of him, and disgusted at all those who ignore his support for the apartheid state of Israel," Masri wrote.