Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri’s new film The Insult, whose Arabic title is translated as Case Number 23, is a major achievement on several levels. It is technically proficient, the actors are believable, and the story line, though intentionally overstated, holds up wonderfully, with a script that rarely falters. That can perhaps be said of many films, but unfortunately not of many Lebanese films, though the number of quality productions coming out of the country has risen remarkably in recent years.
But what lingers in The Insult is that Doueiri and his ex-wife Joelle Touma have written a story that addresses Lebanon’s wartime animosities head on, unflinchingly. Their film also shows that artists can use film to help create a collective memory in a society that has been accused of developing amnesia with regard to its civil war between 1975 and 1990.
The Insult is hardly the first film to achieve that—another film released this year, Mahbas (Solitaire), tried to do so as well to a limited extent, albeit through a much lighter plot. Doueiri and Touma demonstrate that unless one channels experiences of the war in a way that favors reconciliation, those past events can come back to devour the present, harming everyone. And that is a sad testament to Lebanon’s tendency to turn minor incidents into major crises, drawing all sides into battle. Such escalations are not only profoundly destructive, the participants themselves begin to realize this after awhile, but are too locked into their positions to back down.
The Insult has several layers of complexity. It is, at its most basic level, the story of a petty dispute between a supporter of the Christian Lebanese Forces party and a Palestinian, one that opens up wounds from the war years. To a degree the motif of the Palestinian-Christian divide is an anachronism, since the film is set at a time when the two communities had more or less reconciled. However, Doueiri shows how the past can deeply shake present serenity, and it’s probably fair to say that he preferred to steer clear of the potentially more severe fracture prevailing during the film’s timeframe, that between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shi‘a.
The film is also a story about social marginalization. The two main protagonists both come from the urban underclass. The Palestinian is a refugee living in a camp, while the Christian is a garage owner from a working class neighborhood of eastern Beirut. Both hail from the periphery of society, even as their dispute comes to feed the ambitions of those around them who are socially more prominent, each with an agenda of his or her own. As cinematographer Tomasso Fiorilli’s camera pans over poorer quarters of Beirut, favelas both hideous and mesmerizing, Doueiri better anchors his characters in a landscape of urban decay.
As the film unfolds, this landscape becomes an essential character in the drama, creating the context for the confrontation between the two main characters as well as one defining them most profoundly. In a subtle way, Doueiri implies that Lebanon’s conflicts have been driven by the country’s most impoverished elements, those for whom the system has reserved no favors. Lebanon is not an exception here, but by telling us this in the confines of a film on a personal quarrel, Doueiri and Touma take their tale to a new level, using it to expose Lebanon’s unsettled social realities.
The Insult is also a courtroom drama, something relatively rare in Arab cinema, but also full of possibilities in the Lebanese context, with its Mediterranean ambiguities. Several years ago, director Zeina Daccache had the brilliant idea of staging Reginald Rose’s play Twelve Angry Men in Lebanon’s main Roumieh prison. Here were actual prisoners, among them a convicted murderer, acting out a story about a jury deliberating over guilt and innocence. Doueiri’s returning to that format allows for equally fascinating, and moving, set pieces. He shows that, in the end, war spares no one, so that most people can be both culpable and blameless depending on the setting, leaving little room for absolutes.
But what the courtroom format also shows is how Doueiri remains influenced by Hollywood, which has pushed that genre to new heights. Though he has long insisted on remaining independent, Doueiri is sensitive to the imperatives of commercial cinema. In a recent interview he underlined that films were for the general public, not art houses. He has a vivid sense of what drives a story, avoids wordiness, edits his films so they are never plodding, and can play up the pathos when needed. But that’s where Hollywood stops. Beyond that point, Doueiri’s films tend to bring out the complexities and contradictions in the director himself.
For Doueiri is quintessentially Lebanese in balancing multiple identities, whether cultural or political, while feeling comfortable navigating in gray zones. Though he grew up in a Muslim environment sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, he shot his 2012 film The Attack in Israel, the location of the Yasmina Khadra novel on which it is based. Doueiri did not want to make his film in North Africa and sacrifice realism in the process. Nor did his background prevent him from once contemplating a film about Samir Geagea, the Christian leader of the Lebanese Forces, whose character, perhaps not coincidentally, plays a small but important role in The Insult.
You have to wonder how a Western audience will react to Doueiri’s latest film as a consequence of this. There are no sides to take in Doueiri’s and Touma’s story, no good guy and bad guy. Both main characters are victims and both have at one time acted deplorably. To a public usually immersed in films painted in sharp hues, The Insult may seem disconcerting. But then so was the end of Lebanon’s war in 1990, when wartime enemies suddenly came together to form a cohesive postwar political class.
That is what is most tragic in The Insult. The two characters are from environments that have suffered terribly, at the hands of people who were never held accountable. That explains their frustration, occasional violence, and desire for some sort of justice. Just as Doueiri’s protagonists are more similar than they are different, they are also both undone by Lebanon’s capacity to deny clear outcomes. Solutions are approximate, imperfect, as the impulse to compromise invariably muddies the waters.
The Lebanese have reacted well to The Insult, currently the most popular film in Beirut. Doueiri’s momentary detention by the General Security directorate in September, the result of a complaint lodged by someone unhappy with his filming in Israel, was revealing. The authorities, compelled to summon him before the Military Tribunal, quickly had the case dismissed. Officials saw no benefit in targeting Doueiri, whose film had just been honored at the Venice Film Festival with a best actor award for Kamel al-Basha, who plays the role of the Palestinian character.
That episode, like the encouraging response to his film, gave Doueiri new faith in the Lebanese, the director later said. It certainly showed that they can give credit where it’s due. The Insult takes the standards of Lebanese filmmaking up a notch, and will encourage other local directors to do the same. For that alone Doueiri merits our thanks, in a country that still has a habit of leaving far too many good stories untold.