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by Ralph Seliger
Discussed in this essay: The Insult, a drama by filmmaker Ziad Doueiri, 2017, .
AT THE CENTER of The Insult, directed and co-written by Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri, are the enduring passions and grievances from the civil war that consumed his homeland from 1975 until 1990, killing an estimated 150,000 and displacing more than one million. To understand the film’s context, therefore, some historical background is needed. The civil war was triggered by the overbearing presence of armed groups associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the country’s south, an area referred to in Israel at the time as “Fatahland.” This is where the PLO was exiled after losing its short war against Jordan’s King Hussein in “Black September” of 1970.
Palestinian guerrillas would launch attacks from Fatahland into Israel, most notoriously in the 1974 murder of 26 Israelis in the Galilee town of Ma’alot, including 22 schoolchildren taken hostage at an elementary school; and again in a 1978 rampage and bus hijacking on Israel’s coastal road, killing 38 civilians and one soldier. Such incidents triggered periodic Israeli assaults on Lebanon, culminating in the massive invasion of 1982 (“The Lebanon War”) and Israel’s long-term occupation of that country’s southern region, which finally ended in 2000.
As the civil war proceeded, Lebanon disintegrated into numerous warring ethnic and religious factions — including the PLO, Christians, Shi’ites, Druze and Sunnis. Outside forces intervened as well: Israel, of course, as well as the U.S., France and Syria — with Syria’s Assad regime exercising veto power over Lebanon’s government for several decades. The Shi’ite Hezbollah movement, which positioned itself in the 1980s as the leader of the resistance to Israel’s occupation of Lebanon, emerged from this conflict as the country’s most formidable military and political force, an important ally to the Assad family, a proxy of Iran, and a potent threat to Israel.
TONY (played by Lebanese actor and comedian Adel Karam), one of the film’s two main protagonists, is an auto mechanic who owns his Beirut apartment and a car-repair shop. He is also a fanatical supporter of what the film refers to as the “Christian Party.”
I reached out to the filmmaker to better understand this important reference. Remembering me from 2013, when I interviewed him about his film, The Attack, which he also directed and co-scripted, Doueiri explained via email that this “Christian Party” is his moniker for the Lebanese Forces, a contemporary political party in his country that bears the name of the Christian militia alliance it sprang from. This current political formation has partial origins in the Phalange, the powerful Maronite Christian movement briefly allied with Israel when Ariel Sharon overstepped his mandate from the Israeli Cabinet and pursued the PLO into Beirut.
The Tony character, it is revealed, was a child refugee from a town where Christians, in real life, were slaughtered and expelled by an unidentified Muslim faction during the civil war. This explains his state of mind when he refuses to cooperate with a Palestinian construction foreman trying to modify a drainpipe running from Tony’s terrace which was spraying the construction crew at a nearby building site. When the foreman, Yasser (portrayed by Palestinian actor Kamel El Basha), responds to Tony’s obstinance by altering the pipe without permission, Tony angrily takes a hammer to it, prompting Yasser to hurl a verbal insult.
Yasser’s boss later brings Yasser around to apologize, but Tony insults him in turn, declaring that he wished that Sharon — known in the Arab world as the “Butcher of Beirut” — had finished off all his people. Provoked in this manner, Yasser punches Tony hard in the abdomen, breaking several ribs. (Yasser has his own backstory as a Palestinian teenager being similarly provoked by a Jordanian army cook in his refugee-camp hometown following the PLO’s defeat there in 1971.)
The film evolves into a riveting courtroom drama, as Tony seeks redress by suing Yasser for insulting him, and then pressing an assault charge. Two separate court proceedings ensue, revealing how elaborate and sophisticated the Lebanese judicial process apparently is.
The case and the plot are resolved in a feel-good way, providing a satisfying resolution for the audience. As a real-life scenario, however, considering Lebanon’s still-vivid emotional scars, such a denouement seems unlikely.
MY CONCLUSION is partially buttressed by the pushback Doueiri experienced when he first tried to market this film in his native land. Doueiri is a Sunni Muslim who is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but because he filmed The Attack in Israel with Israeli (but also Palestinian) actors and film crew, and portrayed the Israeli characters in nuanced, human terms, he’s been hounded ever since by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and anti-normalization movements.
Still, there’s evidence that attitudes are changing. Doueiri faced a treason inquiry before a Lebanese military judge but informed me via email that this was dismissed in September. He continued:
. . . the BDS movement is still mounting a very vicious attack due to the fact that I filmed The Attack [in] Israel in 2011. They succeeded in stopping The Insult to be shown in Ramallah [in the West Bank - ed.], in spite of the fact that the Palestinian actor Kamel El Basha had [won] best actor at the Venice Film Festival. But BDS couldn’t succeed in stopping the film [anywhere] else. In Lebanon it became number one at the box office . . .”
In November, The Insult was screened at Tunisia’s Carthage Film Festival. It has also become Lebanon’s official contender (now shortlisted) for the 2018 Academy Award for best foreign-language film.
Not surprisingly, being labeled “a Zionist,” as Tony is by Palestinian and leftwing Lebanese detractors, remains a supreme insult in Arab countries. But this humanistic filmmaker’s burgeoning new acceptance in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world provides some hope that even Israelis may one day be regarded holistically, rather than reduced to stereotypes or depicted as single-minded purveyors of a political ideology.
The Insult opens in New York on January 12, 2018, and in Los Angeles one week later.
Ralph Seliger, a JC contributing writer, is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued as a print publication, and currently co-administers The Third Narrative website.