BEIRUT: The fourth feature of Lebanese-born writer-director Ziad Doueiri navigates a provocative line between fiction and nonfiction. “The Insult” begins with a political rally.
“We used to say it was we alone who protected East Beirut,” a political leader tells his audience. “Today we support the Lebanese state.”
Applauding in the midst of the crowd is Toni (Adel Karam), a self-employed mechanic and an ardent follower of the politician. His is a sectarian populist party and working class Christians are a major part of its constituency.
For Lebanese, the rally plays an important part in grounding Toni’s character, not least because the fictional party is named after a real one – the most prominent Christian militia of the last decade of the 1975-90 Civil War and as violent as any in that conflict.
The fictional leader shares the name of the actual party leader.
The rally won’t be very informative to anyone lacking this sociopolitical backstory – most audiences.
“The Insult” had its world premiere in the competition of the Venice Film Festival, which wraps Saturday. It will open in Lebanese cinemas later this month. Co-written with his longtime collaborator Joelle Touma, “The Insult” is Doueiri’s latest adventure in genre.
His much-feted feature-film debut “West Beyrouth,” 1998, told a story of the city’s early days of civil conflict from the perspective of a cinema-mad teenager and his two friends, a Muslim boy and a Christian girl.
Speaking the cinematic language he learned working in the U.S. with Tarantino, “West Beyrouth” repackaged Lebanon’s indigestible Civil War as an easily consumed coming-of-age movie.
Set in ethnically diverse Marseille, 2004’s “Lila Says” related a Francophone young-adult cross-cultural coming-of-age tale of a Muslim boy and a Christian girl.
Shot in Israel with an Israeli crew, Doueiri’s 2012 “The Attack” adapts Yasmina Khadra’s novel (about an Israeli-assimilated Palestinian doctor’s learning that his wife died a suicide bomber) into a story of failed marriage – foregrounding how a (here Christian) wife’s alienation from her careerist husband drove her to terrorism.
“The Insult” returns to Lebanon to wedge Lebanese Christian-Palestinian refugee animosity into a melodramatic courtroom drama. It tells a story of how a petty squabble between Toni and Yasser (Kamel El Basha), a working-class Palestinian, escalates into tribal politics.
The foreman of a building crew, contracted by a Muslim developer-cum-MP to bring Toni’s neighborhood up to legal specifications, Yasser informs Toni his balcony drain needs fixing. Toni refuses the crew entry – not wanting to leave his pregnant wife Shirine (Rita Hayek) alone in his house with strange men.
Yasser’s crewmen work on the drain from outside. As they’re finishing the job, a spiteful Toni comes and destroys it. Yasser curses at him. Good relations with the neighbors are imperative to the MP’s company, Yasser’s boss (Talal Jurdi) tells him. He must apologize, or risk being fired.
Yasser and his boss drop by Toni’s garage to apologize.
“It’s like the Jews say,” Toni sneers when he sees the conflicted Yasser hesitate for a minute or two. “A Palestinian never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
Another few seconds of silence pass and he spits, “I wish Sharon had wiped out all you people.”
Yasser punches Toni in the guts, breaking a couple of ribs. He may live in an illegally built structure, but the mechanic believes in the rule of law, so he sues Yasser for assault.
This brief initial court case, the prolonged appeal process that ensues and a tangle of cultural matters in which they nest – recent political history, tribal prejudice, political opportunism and generational resentment (prosecution and defense lawyers Camille and Nadine Salame (Wajdi Wehbe and Diamand Bou Abboud) are father and daughter) – serve as the principal narrative of “The Insult.”
The film’s lensing (by “The Attack” DP Tommaso Fiorilli) has something of a television aesthetic – a fondness for close-ups, shifting from Steadicam to a hand-heldlike shuttering for stressful moments, leavened with a few aerial (drone and helicopter) shots.
At times the photography and production design strain beneath the script’s demands. When a Palestinian deliveryman is badly injured in Toni’s neighborhood, the opportunistic developer-cum-MP (who’s just sacked Yasser because he’s Palestinian) calls on Beirut’s Palestinians to vent their rage.
The screen briefly riffles through jump-cuts of kaffiyeh-clad youth heaving rocks from behind burning barricades. Hyperbolic as Beirut street politics can be at times, it’s sadly comic to imagine Palestinian kids being allowed to indulge in intifada-type behavior in Lebanon.
For overseas audiences, like those at Venice, “The Insult” will be read as a solemn plea for peace and reconciliation in all territories torn by civil conflict. Given the state of this region in the wake of the Arab Spring – and the turmoil of European politics in the midst of its migrant crisis – it’s the season for such sentiments.
In Lebanon “The Insult” will receive more tendentious readings.
Postwar Lebanese filmmakers addressing the Civil War have trodden lightly, unhinging their fictive warlords and gunmen from historic specifics like names. It’s pragmatic to avoid precise indictment of wartime transgressions when the transgressors run segments of the state.
Pragmatism has provided an opportunity (rarely chosen hereabouts) for filmmakers to liberate themselves from documentary “truths” and lie as only artists are encouraged to do – the sort of creative deceit that succeeded in making Doueiri’s first feature so universal.
In practice, the scriptwriters’ premise (that there were no innocent parties in Lebanon’s Civil War, and there were victims on all sides) means the story’s sympathies shift from one side, at the start of the film, to the other at trial’s end.
The story’s final third will provoke eye-rolling skepticism in some – both because of the episodes of the country’s sordid recent history the plot dwells upon for dramatic effect, and because the fictionalized Christian politician returns to speak as a moderating sage.
Doueiri and Touma’s decision to lionize one politician from a segment of one sectarian community while keeping the rest anonymous invites local audiences to read “The Insult” in partisan terms.
In the parochial detail of its narrative, Doueiri has come home with a fiction for Lebanon. No doubt the scriptwriters’ choices in mingling fiction and nonfiction were of some utility in getting the film made, and their choices will appeal to some.
Cinema doesn’t have a great record in achieving national reconciliation. It’s unlikely “The Insult” will do much to change that.
At the end of the day, film is judged by other criteria.