“The Insult” Director Ziad Doueiri on War, Repression, and How His Film Is Not ‘Even-Handed’

Also, he cites "Rango" as a major influence


In Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult, a brief argument between a Christian home-owner and a Palestinian contractor over a busted water pipe in a small Beirut neighborhood explodes into a seismic court case that threatens to swallow an entire nation. The film might be a high-concept allegory, but it’s also a riveting legal drama about the nature of justice and the buried resentments of the past. And it’s yet another deeply personal work from Doueiri, whose work regularly tackles the complex tangle of allegiances in the modern Middle East.  (The director comes from a Muslim family. His co-writer Joelle Touma — who was also, until recently, his wife — is from a Lebanese Christian family.) I talked to Doueiri recently the real-life origins of his tale, the time when he was targeted for having shot a film in Israel, and the increasing repression in the Middle East.

How did you come up with the story for The Insult?

It’s very similar to the way the film itself starts, actually. A few years ago I was watering my plants in Beirut, and the water fell on a construction worker, and we had a little bit of an argument. We exchanged some insults, just like in the film. But it got resolved pretty fast. And then, two days later, I started thinking, “What if a story starts with something so insignificant, a gutter problem, and instead of getting resolved, it actually gets complicated?” That idea started to grow in my head. Those characters are propelled into something a lot bigger than they thought it would be. It goes to a tribunal, it goes to a second tribunal, the Court of Appeal, all the way to the government — it becomes a national issue.

The story essentially turns on a dime. It’s not traditionally “realistic,” but I found it very convincing within the space of the film. Audiences have to believe that such an incident could grow like this, in order to be pulled into the story. I imagine creating that kind of illusion takes some doing.

Look, words in Lebanon and in the Middle East are very loaded. Things can get out of control, believe me. It is not pure fiction. People take things to heart. You say the wrong thing, you talk about religion, and they can go apeshit on you in the Middle East. When the film was shown, the Lebanese audience did not say, “Oh no, that’s not believable.” They saw it as something that they had been through. They totally identified with the dynamic.

But in constructing the story, were there any challenges in trying to make it all believable?

When I sat down with Joelle [Touma] and we started building the story, we were digging into our past. We knew we were touching on a sensitive subject, because the Christians in Lebanon after the end of the war were completely marginalized. (And when I say “the Christians,” it’s not as a religion but as a political party — the people who fought with the Lebanese Force and the Phalangist Party. It just happens that they are Christian.) We had to make sure that we didn’t get attacked on things that are not true. We had to make sure that the psychology of those characters — the Christian and the Palestinian — was true.

But we wanted also to make a film that’s understood not only by the Lebanese people; we wanted to write it in a way that an American audience, a French audience, an Italian audience could sit down and relate to. Most people don’t know who Bashir Gemayel is. Most people have never heard of the Lebanese Forces Party, which in the film I call The Christian Party. But we knew that they will understand that there are two people at each other’s throat, and each is claiming that they have the just point of view. This is a universal theme. Whether you see it in Turkey, or you see it in India, or you see it in Spain — the film was in their festivals — everybody could relate to those characters. When the film was shown at the Valladolid Film Festival in Spain, people were very emotional about it because it reminded them of what was going on in Spain when the Catalonians wanted to secede. And when the film was shown at the Kerala Film Festival in India, people commented that they have the same problems between the Muslims and the Hindus.

One of the things I love about The Insult is that — and I will choose my words carefully here — you’re not “even-handed.” At least, not in the way that we might expect. You’re not sober or disinterested. At any given point in the film, the viewer can be angry at the way one character is being treated by the other. But then it might switch. 

I am glad that you mentioned this, because it’s so true. It is not an even-handed film. I have taken sides. It’s just that I change sides from time to time.

Which is what we do as humans, right? Maybe that’s one of the reasons why films like this are important, because when we take a political stance in real life, we often pretend to consistency. We take sides, for whatever reason, and we stick to those sides. But within the space of a film, our allegiances can change.

It lets us see things from an emotional standpoint. We think we’re so even-handed, that we’re fair. It’s not true.

It seems this might also be reflected in the way you went about writing this film. You wrote it with your ex-wife, who comes from a Christian background. You come from a Muslim background, though you’re secular. And also, you were going through a divorce as you were writing the film.

That’s right. Joelle and I reached a point in our relationship where we thought that that was the end of it, and it was a mutual decision. It’s not like we were fighting about it. But we have a daughter at the same time, and we are very, very attached to her. And we’re very attached to each other also. We are really, in the truest sense of the word, best friends. We work together, we have an incredible compatibility — we were not going to throw that away. You have a checklist in life, and if you match nine points out of 10 on that checklist positively, then you don’t give it up. So, we’d wake up in the morning, we would discuss the procedures a little bit, how to file the divorce papers. In France when you get divorced you have to file through the city hall. And we’d go back to write the scenes. And then the next day we’d get a letter back from city hall, which would say, “You have to fill in this.” We’d sit down, discuss it, and then we’d jump right back into the scene we were writing. It was actually very smooth. I laugh about it now. I said, “We failed in our marriage, but we succeeded in our divorce so well.” And we’re probably going to do the next film together.

With your previous film The Attack, you got in trouble in Lebanon because you had shot the film in Israel. I remember at the time people were asking you to apologize for this. Did that experience inform The Insult as well?

I rewrote a lot of the scenes with the main lawyer, Wajdi Wehbe, the guy who’s defending the Christian, as a response to the boycott of the film. It didn’t go down well with me when they boycotted The Attack in 2012. I thought that was fucked, that it was unethical and irrational. And I decided to respond because I was hurt, in the truest sense of the word. When you spend two, three, four years of your life making a movie, and somebody accuses you of something that convinces 22 Arab countries to stop your film…I can’t say, “Yeah, it’s okay.” It’s not okay. So I decided to rewrite some of the scenes specifically in response to those people who boycotted the movie, who in fact tried again to stop The Insult as well. They mounted a huge, vicious campaign two months ago hoping to convince the government to stop the film. But luckily the Lebanese government didn’t find anything incriminating in The Insult, so they decided to release it. But then people tried to attack it again when the Lebanese government submitted it to the Oscars. They filed a complaint with the Lebanese army, and I was arrested at the airport three months ago.

They only succeeded in stopping the film in Ramallah. They tried to stop the film in Tunisia — they couldn’t. They tried to stop the film in Egypt — they couldn’t. They tried to stop the film in Morocco — they couldn’t. They only managed to stop it in Palestine. And I think it’s very unfortunate, because the actor who plays the Palestinian won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival – the first time in history, for a Palestinian. When he went back to show the film to Palestinian audiences, the BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement] mounted a huge campaign and they stopped the movie. I think that’s stupid. You are allowed to not watch a movie. You’re allowed to hate a movie. But you’re not allowed to stop other people from watching a movie.

It seems in many ways like this is getting worse across the Middle East.

I think it’s getting worse.

It’s just shocking how much worse repression has gotten everywhere. And I don’t know where it ends. In your film, the way the situation resolves itself is interesting. Without giving too much away, the resolution comes not through peaceful negotiating, but through a kind of violence.

Right. But to tell you the truth, I am an optimist by nature. I am positive. I like to have hope. And it’s not coming out of good-heartedness or from a politically correct place. It’s coming because I know where I grew up. We grew up in a place where it was very difficult to keep hope. We grew up in a conflict where sometimes evil rules. We’ve seen so many bad things happen in the Middle East that affected our lives. At the end of the day, I did not want to succumb to that negative feeling. There is always hope — at least in my films. Because I have to be able to escape somewhere. The end of The Insult is bittersweet, but it has hope.

This is something many of us wrestle with when it comes to Turkey. Those in power try to tell us that in reality it was always like this and that those of us who wanted to live in a more modern, more tolerant, more secular society were merely in a bubble. I’m convinced this is a form of gaslighting. I remember that country; it had its problems, but it was also striving for something different than what we have now. That society existed; it wasn’t an illusion. I imagine you might have similar feelings about Lebanon.

I grew up in a Lebanon that was very pluralistic. In the ‘60s and the ‘70s there was really an open dialogue and open debate. And any fundamentalism was very sidetracked. So, they can’t come and tell us that was not real… We lived it. How could that not be real? It didn’t last too long because of many reasons. Because of dictatorship, because of the arrival of Islamic fundamentalists. But we lived it. The ‘70s was a secular wave. Now, it failed to bring concrete change to the people. People are still poor, the Palestinians are still occupied. So, the leftist movement, in a way, failed to bring them salvation, but it was all surely well-intended. What we lived back in the ‘60s and the ‘70s was real. You cannot come and tell us, “No, that was not real.” That is real! We lived it! Today we are less free. But there are a million reasons why it happened, why it failed.

You started out as a cameraman. When you start thinking of a film, or even writing a film, are you thinking visually? Are you seeing shots? How does your mind work?

The first draft of The Insult was really concentrated on getting the story done. We knew our subject so well, and we were studying those characters. What is their past, what are their similarities? I did not think in visual terms. But then in the second draft, I started visualizing it. I did not pre-plan my shots. I did not want to storyboard, I did not want to be overly prepared. I just knew that it was going to work. How? Don’t ask me. I just came to the set, I did a rehearsal, and I worked my way as we were doing the rehearsal. So, I would figure out my shot while I was shooting. I would not give a list to the crew, “Okay, we have one master, three closeups, and then the reverse angle.” It took a toll on the crew because they did not know what was happening next. I just trusted the process. I knew that I just had to follow my instincts and let the story take me where I wanted to go. That’s quite different from how I worked on The Attack or my other films. The Insult is the least “prepared” film I’ve ever done, and I think it worked.

Do you think it was the nature of the material, or the fact that you’re now at a certain point in your career where you can just step on a set and figure out how you’re going to shoot something?

It’s probably the latter. I knew that I could trust my instincts. I did a series in France just before I went to do The Insult. It’s called Baron Noir. Black Baron. I worked on it for one year. I experimented with free-flowing camera — just let the actor come on set, and let the camera adjust to where they are. The camera becomes an organic part of the actor’s movement. It worked on Baron Noir. And then I did it on The Insult. So, it’s all about knowing your characters better. It doesn’t mean every film will be like this, but I’ve done it consistently like this since The Attack, and I’m loving this process for the time being.

I love the fact that, along with everything else The Insult is also kind of a high-concept melodrama. You’ve got the father-daughter rival lawyers — which is straight out of American cinema. There’s a great, flashy legal thriller called Class Action, with Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as father-daughter rival lawyers.

I want to tell you, I wrote The Insult in English, and then I had it translated to Arabic. I felt like English fits better a courtroom drama. During the writing process, I would just crank out some scenes, and then I would go back and look at American courtroom drama. I’ve seen so many of them now. I watched them over and over and over. I would ask, “How did they do it in a way that worked? Why did Judgment at Nuremberg work so well? Why did The Verdict work so well, or Philadelphia work so well?” I was just wondering, “Do people want to still see courtroom drama?” And I thought, “Why not, why not, why not?” You look at Judgment at Nuremberg, and it’s a three-hour movie, and it’s all happening in a courtroom, and it’s fantastic. Such quality writing. It’s all about the human condition, and it is really one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. I studied it a lot. But then during that time, I also fell upon a film called The Story of Qiu Ju, by Zhang Yimou, and I love that film because it’s about a woman who wants the mayor of the village, the head of the village, to apologize to her husband, and it actually influenced me.

Then I stumbled upon Rango. And that influenced me so much during the writing. People say, “What the fuck is the relationship between Rango and The Insult?” At the end, in Rango, the lizard faces the big snake, and he says, “You’re just a fraud. Get out of here.” And then Rango throws his sheriff’s star, and he goes back to where he came from, which inspired me to write a scene when Tony goes back to his village at the end of act two. And then there’s one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, [Bong Joon-ho’s] Memories of Murder. How those two characters change, the detective from Seoul and the provincial detective, and how at the end of the movie they swap roles. This idea also played a role in writing the film. You know, filmmaking is unpredictable. You don’t sit with a set of rules… It just came out. It was the easiest writing I’ve ever done with Joelle. We just knew the material so well. We wrote it in record time. I don’t think I’ll be able to write that fast the next time.