WJFF Director Ilya Tovbis talks with film director Ziad Doueri about his latest film The Insult, which has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The Insult opens in DC-area theaters on February 2 – tickets and more information can be found here.
ILYA: Your film is in large part successful, to my mind, because it focuses so intently on two genuine human characters – a Christian Lebanese mechanic and a Palestinian construction worker. What starts as a pretty ordinary spat between the two, escalates to extreme levels, and it’s an escalation that seems clearly fed by the complex history of Lebanon, the Arab world in general, and the current political moment more specifically. Was it a struggle to keep the story focused on these two individuals rather than overtly take on larger national and geopolitical concerns? How do you boil down such a complicated society into such a simple story, without losing important elements of truth?
ZIAD: We started by developing characters first, by building their résumé, their background, their needs, their wants, and it is while we were drafting the storyline we started to feel naturally that it was expanding to a larger scale, meaning social and political and religious. If we did it the other way around maybe it could have become a bit artificial and contrived. We always start with character study and not the other way around. Therefore we were able to make it universal and not just bogged down to local politics.
In all my films, I always choose to make a story outline very simple. I don’t like complicated plots. If it’s a complicated plot, it takes away from the complexity of the characters. I like to make things very clear to the audience, to understand what the story is about.
ILYA: It’s taken you two decades to return to Lebanon to make a film. What were the challenges that kept you from doing so earlier, and how were you finally able to with The Insult?
ZIAD: I have been wanting to return to Lebanon for a while because I believe this place is a Pandora box of stories. However I abstained to do so after my earlier film, The Attack, was banned in Lebanon and in 22 Arab countries. I was extremely upset about the BDS boycotting the film in 2012. I thought that was a fascist way to coerce artists, filmmakers, rock singers, into abiding by their point of views. I thought at that time that it was a closed chapter for me. But most of the scenes that I wrote in The Insult were actually my way of responding to the BDS in Lebanon and then Ramallah and their acolytes. I was not going to let it pass and let fascism take over. The Insult is really after all a multi-layered story but all the lawyers scenes have been rewritten in response to the BDS boycott.
“In all my films, I choose to make a story outline very simple. I don’t like complicated plots.
If it’s a complicated plot, it takes away from the complexity of the characters.”
ILYA: You’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of aggressive criticism for this film – from Lebanese, Palestinian and Egyptian sources, among others. Do you feel any vindication in the success and acclaim the film has been receiving, most recently culminating in your Oscar nomination?
ZIAD: The nomination to the Oscars is certainly a wonderful thing but it’s even more gratifying due to the constant attacks on the films that I make, starting with the earlier one The Attack, followed by the attacks on The Insult. This nomination immunes us more.
ILYA: One of the main critiques is that the film deals with one massacre—Damour—without providing the context of other major massacres such as Sabra and Shatila. That by extension you are privileging Christian suffering to Palestinian suffering. What’s your response?
ZIAD: This film is not about the Sabra and Shatila massacre, this is about Tony Hannah story. I am amazed when people mention, or make movies, or make documentaries about Sabra and Shatila, no one seems to mind that, no one makes a link.
ILYA: The BDS movement in particular has taken major issue with The Insult, claiming that you are “normalizing” relations with Israel, and have called for screenings to be cancelled in Ramallah, Tunisia, Egypt, etc. Can you explain their argument against the film?
ZIAD: Their argument is totally bogus. I want them to convince me how are they helping their people’s cause when Kamel el Basha wins, for the first time in Palestinian history, best actor at the Venice Film Festival, but forbids him from sharing it with his own people.
ILYA: Interestingly, much of these criticisms seem to stem from the fact that you’re not trying to make a “balanced” film – you have a point of view, which is something that in most cases we want artists and directors to have. This isn’t journalism, it’s filmmaking. Do you think that with the increasingly polarized moment politically—both globally and in the Arab world— it’s becoming harder to make a film like this, and to have it understood and appreciated?
ZIAD: No matter how much we are living in a polarized moment, it does not affect the way I write or what I want to write. I actually think that people understood the message of this film. There have been a lot of attacks, but the majority of people in Lebanon have crossed that taboo line and went to see the movie. The people who are objecting and calling for boycott are a very small group waging propaganda and usually people who shout louder, get heard the most. That doesn’t mean that others listen to them. People in Lebanon went to see the movie because they identified with the characters in the film. The only place that the BDS managed to win is Ramallah. That’s their only claim to fame.
“No matter how much we are living in a polarized moment,
it does not affect the way I write or what I want to write.”
ILYA: You co-wrote the film with your ex-wife, Joëlle Touma – she’s from a Christian background and you are a secular Muslim. During the writing, you were going through a divorce. How did this personal situation—if at all—manifest in the writing of The Insult?
ZIAD: I would like to clarify something. I come from a Muslim secular background. I have never been religious, not even my parents. When we say Muslim or Christian in Lebanon it has a lot more political connotation than religious.
Joëlle and I wrote 3 films together. We share the same values, the same background, even though we were from opposite camps. The divorce had no influence on the writing of the film, none whatsoever. We mutually came to the understanding that we could continue on as friends, writing partners, and parents. It was actually a very smooth transition.
ILYA: The film eventually becomes a courtroom drama. Were you nervous about confining such a volatile clash into these bureaucratic surroundings? I think you did an exceptional job keeping the tension alive in those scenes – did you take cues from any other courthouse drama cinema?
ZIAD: I felt from the very start that this film was going to be a courtroom drama. I’ve always wanted to do a courtroom drama because I have seen so many of them; some of my favorite films: Judgement at Nuremberg, The Verdict, Philadelphia, 12 Angry Men, etc.