The Insult starts with a small, almost insignificant street incident, which evolves into an explosive trial at the Lebanese high court that rocks the nation and pits Lebanese Christians against Palestinians. Director and co-writer Ziad Doueiri talks about his Oscar-nominated film; the first one in the history of his country.
“Injustice is not some philosophical concept to me” – Ziad Doueiri
The film starts small, but evolves into a genuine courtroom drama - which is a nice surprise.
"I've always wanted to make a courtroom drama. I worked for 16 years in the States, that was my schooling. The Americans do it so well, they perfected this genre: Kramer versus Kramer, Philadelphia, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Neurenberg, and of course, 12 Angry Man. I was curious to tackle this type of film myself. On top of that, my mother is a lawyer, who at the age of 80 still practices and my uncles are judges; one of them works at the supreme court in Beirut. Conversations about law are part of the family language, so to speak, and cases were talked about during our family dinners. On a deeper level I wanted to make The Insult because I grew up in the civil war, from 1975 until I left in 1983. As a teenager I witnessed many instances of injustice, almost on a daily basis; being stopped at a checkpoint going to school, or standing in line waiting to buy bread and being surpassed by a leader from the militia, who jumps the queue because he has a weapon. Or denied a visa because you're country is at war. Add all these things up and it shapes your view of the world: injustice is not a philosophical thing for me. The trigger for the whole project was an incident that happened a few years ago, when some water fell on me and I had a verbal exchange with the workers. Nothing came of it, but I was told that my reaction was very offensive. That got me thinking, how it could have gotten out of hand: a very stupid, insignificant incident that is not resolved grows more and more complex, and ends up in front of a political court. It could happen, in Lebanon."
Not to insult the director of The Insult, but with all the political implications, the film had me entertained as well for its duration.
"An insult? Are you kidding? Absolutely not. We didn’t write the film especially for a Lebanese audience, but as a universal story that people anywhere in the world can relate to. You might miss some details, as you would in a Chinese masterpiece or a episode of House of Cards, but still get the characters. So if for example you don't know who Bashir Gemayel is... who cares? The Lebanese audience knows, but if you are Dutch, Icelandic, or from New Zealand you might not know him, but still understand the story. It's about two people at each others throats.”
But surely, the film plays differently in your home country than elsewhere?
"It was emotional in Lebanon. It touched a very sensitive issue because it's a subject that has never been discussed before and it is still an unresolved issue. Even if the Lebanese and the Palestinians are not at war anymore, there is a past… it is a chapter that has been closed but has not been discussed. Lebanon is still polarized. The film was loved and attacked at the same time. But it’s important to note here is that we did not make the film in order to provoke or to point fingers. If you do that, it becomes an artificial story. And you can't deny it, we live in a very polarised world. Most democracies today, in The Netherlands, Austria, France, United States... are falling apart: into the right and the left and the extreme right and the extreme left... we're shifting. You should not be surprised that the same thing happens in Lebanon."
No, but what would not happen to a Dutch filmmaker is what happened after you went to Venice Film Festival: your film picked up an important award and as a result you got your passport revoked and you had to go to court.
"Because the government of Lebanon is divided, we are living in a democracy that is very fragile. When I was stopped and arrested at the airport, it was for a film called The Attack, something which I did five years ago. As a Lebanese citizen, it is illegal for me to go to Israel. But that's what I did for The Attack, and I paid a very high price for it. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions-group waged a very big battle to convince the government and other Arabic countries not to release The Attack, and they won that battle. When The Insult won the Best Actor Award in Venice this September, the same group waged the battle again. However it is different technically, because this film was shot 100 percent legally, in Lebanon. The government arrested me and then I was released and they didn't find criminal intent. Talking about Palestine and Israel is a very sensitive subjects. It is like talking about the Nazi-era in the Germany of the fifties, or about Franco in Spain in 1975. So when you talk about Israel and Palestine, people get fucking upset."
But you did know you would pay such a price for shooting a film in Israel?
"I get that line all the time: you knew it was dangerous. Of course I knew! But what do you do? I'm a filmmaker. We make movies... we take risks. What am I going to do, shoot it in Amsterdam? It doesn't make sense. You don't betray your country by working with Israelis. At the end of the day, my only responsibility is towards the film. Not who is this and who is that; who is Jewish and who is Muslim. So when I heard that The Insult was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, I was ecstatic. It feels that all the effort and hard work to save this movie was worth it - at one point I was convinced that the Lebanese government would never release the film because of the subject matter. That we made it so far, is fantastic news to me. Wonderful. It is the first time in history that a Lebanese film is nominated. If feels like justice is done."
The Insult screened at IFFR 2018 and hits Dutch cinemas on 15 February 2018.
Photo in header: Interview: Anton Damen