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Life imitates art as an Oscar entry exposes Lebanon’s buried history

Cohen Media Group | A screengrab from Ziad Doueiri's "The Insult", Lebanon's official entry for this year's Oscars.

“The Insult,” Lebanon’s first Oscar foreign film nomination, reveals how memories of the past can turn a minor spat into a major political confrontation – for the characters and the film-makers.


Squashed between Israel and Syria, with their respective conflicts frequently spilling across its borders, Lebanon has been in a precarious state almost since its birth. Packed with refugees and a multi-religious citizenry living in simmering disharmony on a sliver of land, the country has descended into chaos in the past. It sometimes seems like the only thing holding Lebanon together is a fear of revisiting the bad old days – even as an official amnesia papers over past atrocities, enabling the Lebanese to let bygones be bygones.

But an active policy of ignoring history in order to get on with the present comes with its own problems, as this year’s official Lebanese submission for the Oscars demonstrates.

Directed by Ziad Doueiri, “The Insult” tells the tale of how a minor altercation between two men – in this case, over a leaky pipe – can escalate into a national feud that reopens old wounds and threatens to rip apart the fabric of the nation.

The film opens in the Fassouh neighbourhood of Beirut -- a predominantly Christian area of the Lebanese capital. Toni Hanna, a brawny Christian man in his early 40s, is watering the plants on his balcony when the offending pipe drips water on Yasser Salameh, a gaunt Palestinian foreman supervising a construction crew on the street.

Yasser goes up to Toni’s apartment and offers to fix the leak – politely. He is rather rudely rebuffed and from there, it all goes downhill. Insults are traded, apologies demanded, and as the fracas escalates, an odd punch is delivered and a few bones fractured.

As the protagonists dig in their heels, police complaints and arrest warrants are filed, lawyers hired, and the case makes its way through the courts before finally landing at Lebanon’s Supreme Court. In the process, memories of past grievances and atrocities committed during the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war are dredged up and the very stability of the nation is put at stake.

A minor altercation winds its way up to Lebanon's Supreme Court in 'The Insult'.
A minor altercation winds its way up to Lebanon's Supreme Court in 'The Insult'. (Cohen Media Group)

The script -- which Doueiri co-wrote with his ex-wife, Joelle Touma -- is a fictional tale, but given Lebanon’s history, not an entirely improbable one.

The 15-year civil war only came to an end with the signing of the 1989 Taif Agreement and a precarious general amnesty that pardoned all political crimes committed during the conflict. And with that, the Lebanese were expected to get over a war that killed an estimated 2.5 percent of the population, displaced over 700,000 people, and saw many others missing in an internecine conflict that pitted a dizzying number of militias fighting tooth-and-nail for turf, committing massacres, and aligning themselves with any regional power that could give their side an edge in the war.

With no mechanisms for transitional justice or accountability for war crimes, it’s little wonder that Lebanon today is a powder keg that could explode at any moment. “Our history books don’t look at the civil war. Politicians who were warlords are still in power. Each little group has its own sets of beliefs and prejudices, all piled up in this little place, and nothing was done at a national level,” explains Touma. “That’s the dangerous part of Lebanon – if things become tense, conflict can erupt at any time.”

Arrested for an earlier film

For Doueiri and Touma, who wrote the script while the couple was divorcing, the making and release of “The Insult” was, in many ways, an eerie case of life imitating art.

'The Insult' scriptwriter Joelle Touma and director Ziad Doueiri at the Venice Film Festival in September 2017.
'The Insult' scriptwriter Joelle Touma and director Ziad Doueiri at the Venice Film Festival in September 2017.

Last summer, when the Lebanon-born, Paris-based Doueiri arrived in Beirut for the Lebanese premiere of “The Insult,” he was immediately detained at the Rafic Hariri International Airport.

Flush from the film’s success at the 2017 Venice Film Festival – where Kamel El Basha, who played Yasser, won the Best Actor award – Doueiri was due a hero’s welcome. Instead, the acclaimed director was summoned before a military court to answer accusations of treason.

“I was hurt, to tell you the truth,” said Doueiri in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “But I was also worried because no matter what, it can be very intimidating. You know you’re innocent, but it can still affect the film and when you’re arrested, you start feeling very worried.”

The detention made little sense to the film producers and crew. The problem was not with “The Insult,” but an earlier film, “The Attack,” which Doueiri also directed and co-wrote with Touma. Based on a novel by Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra about an Israeli-Arab surgeon whose wife becomes a suicide bomber, the film was shot in Israel.

Under Lebanese law, citizens are banned from traveling to the Jewish state or doing business with Israelis. But Article 285 of the Lebanese penal code is arbitrarily implemented in the tiny Arab nation, with dual nationals using their second passports to enter Israel or ensuring their Lebanese passports do not have an Israeli stamp.

In Doueiri’s case it was particularly baffling since the director had traveled frequently to Lebanon since “The Attack” was released – including trips to shoot “The Insult” – without any trouble.

Ziad Doueiri shooting 'The Insult' in Lebanon.
Ziad Doueiri shooting 'The Insult' in Lebanon. (Cohen Media Group)

What’s more, the Lebanese culture ministry had already selected “The Insult” as Lebanon’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 2018 Oscars. The film has since made it to the Academy’s final five, becoming Lebanon’s first-ever Oscar foreign language film nomination.

What’s more, the Lebanese culture ministry had already selected “The Insult” as Lebanon’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 2018 Oscars. The film has since advanced to a shortlist of nine out of 92 entries this year. The five final Oscar foreign film nominations will be announced on January 23.

The 54-year-old director thought “the page had been turned” on the controversy surrounding “The Attack,” but it was not to be. The “Ziad Doueiri affair” -- as the case came to be called in the Lebanese press – drew international attention and as the scandal escalated, with trolls hurling insults at the director and news teams covering every development, the experience began to take on a certain déjà-vu quality for Doueiri and Touma.

“It started feeling like we were living the film again,” recalls Touma. “Every issue we developed in the film, we were confronting in real life: justice, prejudice, how we think of the other… and because Ziad was also arrested [like one of the characters in the film] and taken to military court, it seemed like reality was getting mixed with the film.”

Impunity for all and justice for none

Four months after the scandal ended in his release without charge, Doueiri has an explanation for why he was arrested for the wrong film. “I think they did not agree with the content of 'The Insult', with the message of the film since we’re talking about accountability,” he explains.

Introspection about guilt and responsibility has never been part of the Lebanese national character. The country’s history is clogged with unsolved assassinations and aggressors-turned-politicians sharing platforms with their erstwhile foes. A UN tribunal investigating the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafic Hariri, for instance, has cost millions of dollars and resulted in no arrests so far. A much-anticipated Museum of Memory in Beirut opened last year with no director, board of governors, or consensus on the institution’s artistic writ.

Into this climate of flagrant impunity, a film like “The Insult” -- which not only examines the vice-like grip of the past, but also explores it from all sides -- is bound to ruffle feathers.

Adel Karam as Toni Hanna (L) and Kamel El Basha as Yasser Salameh in 'The Insult'.
Adel Karam as Toni Hanna (L) and Kamel El Basha as Yasser Salameh in 'The Insult'. (Cohen Media Group)

In the action-packed world of “The Insult,” victims become aggressors, villains reveal their pain, heroes lose their cool and hotheads settle down. More unsettling though for a populace that has never undergone a truth and reconciliation process, “The Insult” nudges and overturns the official version of history, revealing a dirty stain that many Lebanese would prefer not to see.

When the Palestinians were the victims

While the Lebanese civil war drew in a number of militias, the conflict was largely fought between the country’s Muslims and Christians. The former camp included Lebanese Shiites as well as Palestinian refugees, backed at various points by Syria and Iran. Meanwhile the Christian militias, scrambling for backers, turned to the enemy and allied with Israel.

History has not been kind to the Christian side for good reason, particularly after the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, when Christian militias allied to the Kataeb -- also called the Phalange -- Party entered the Palestinian camp in Beirut and massacred at least 800 civilians while Israeli troops secured the camp’s perimetres.

“The Insult” begins with the sympathy scales tipped heavily in favour of Yasser, the Palestinian foreman, a 50-something-year-old man of decency and honour whose very demeanor appears as crushed as the fate of his hapless, stateless people.

In sharp contrast, Toni, the Maronite Christian garage owner, cuts a despicable figure. With muscles bulging from his sleeveless vest, the younger man works in his garage while a TV hooked to a loudspeaker blasts the incendiary speeches of Bashir Gemayel, commander of the Christian Lebanese Forces, whose September 1982 assassination triggered the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

More than three decades after his death, the grainy images of Gemayel heaping vitriol on the Palestinians is still deeply disturbing. “It’s such a taboo subject, it’s emotionally unsettling for a Lebanese audience, whether they are pro-Gemayel or anti-Gemayel,” notes Doueiri.

When the Palestinians were the aggressors

But the disquieting raking over of the past does not end there. As the altercation between Toni and Yasser finds its way to the courts, “The Insult” prises the lid off yet another unmentionable chapter of Lebanese history: the January 1976 Damour massacre.

Toni, it turns out, is a survivor of the overlooked atrocity, which saw hundreds of civilians killed when Palestinian factions linked to the Syrian regime entered the Christian village of Damour, located around 20 kilometres south of Beirut.

While the film is careful not to compare the suffering of different groups, nor does it suggest that history’s ills justify the actions of the protagonists, it does shine a light on buried chapters of the past that have left victims to marinate in a stew of resentment.

While the war ended with the Palestinians once again emerging as history’s victims, the losses of the elite Christians have never been recognised. “Damour has not been talked about at all and the fact that we talk about the massacre in Damour probably upset a lot of people,” says Touma. “I believe people dug back to the fact that Ziad shot his last film in Israel in an attempt to mix up everything, to make people wary of seeing this film.”

‘I’m not an NGO’

Born to Sunni Muslim parents, Doueiri grew up in Beirut during the war sympathetic, like everyone around him, to the Palestinian cause. That has not changed, as the Franco-Lebanese director, who also holds a US passport, repeated time and again during the “Ziad Doueiri affair”.

Touma, on the other hand, grew up in a Christian household and her journey of understanding her country began as a journalist covering Lebanon for French daily Liberation.

Divided by sectarian childhoods and later, a divorce, the director-scriptwriter team is nonetheless united in their search for the truth. “We’re not denying Palestinian suffering, that Sabra and Shatila did not happen,” says Doueiri. “We’re not negating history. We’re just discussing another side that nobody is seeing.”

Now for the first time since the civil war ended nearly 30 years ago, audiences have the chance to explore a hidden chapter of the conflict and its effects on the survivors.

But while the film has a deep resonance for Lebanese viewers, the power of the narrative is compelling even for audiences not seeped in the minutiae of Middle Eastern history. “We knew a Lebanese audience would understand the film without explanations. But we didn’t want the history to be heavy for an audience not familiar with Lebanon’s history,” explains Touma. “We worked hard to maintain the right balance, to make it universal and provide the context so that the characters are understandable. Audiences are getting it not because it’s Lebanese, but because they understand the story of two men with anger piling up because a conflict is never resolved.”

As with many human stories, the film has been resonating with viewers across the world. After a screening in Spain, audiences said the film addressed their own official amnesia over the Franco dictatorship. In the US, a post-screening discussion focused on the polarisation of American society.

Doueiri, however, seems almost uneasy about the polemic his latest film is sparking. “It’s a film,” he says rhetorically. “It’s a story about two human beings. You can’t ask too much of film, it can’t bring social change. I’m not an NGO, I’m a director.”

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