Ziad Doueiri is a Lebanese film director who recently released The Insult, whose Arabic titled is translated as Case Number 23. The film, which will be released in Europe and the United States in January 2018, is Lebanon’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, and last month was the first Lebanese film shortlisted for the Oscars. Doueiri, who is currently directing a French television series Baron Noir, began his career as a camera assistant working with, among others, Quentin Tarantino. His first film, West Beirut, was made in 1998, and put him on the map. Subsequently, Doueiri made a number of other films, including Lila Says (2004) and The Attack (2012), which he shot in Israel, earning him the enmity of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions campaign. Doueiri prepares his screenplays with his ex-wife Joelle Touma, who has worked on most of his films. Diwan met with Doueiri in Paris in early December 2017 to discuss The Insult and much more.
Michael Young: Your film The Insult has garnered quite a few plaudits outside of Lebanon, including a best actor award for Kamel al-Basha at the Venice Film Festival, as well as other prizes. What accounts for this success, given that the subject matter may not be immediately comprehensible to foreign audiences?
Ziad Doueiri: The surprising thing is that foreign audiences have completely understood the film, although they might have missed certain details. The proof is that we won audience awards in San Francisco, at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, in Spain, and in southern France. The reason for this is that when my ex-wife and cowriter Joelle Touma and I wrote the story, we wanted to make sure not to write it in a way that only a Lebanese audience would understand. But at the same time, you have to offer something truthful and be able to give some details about Lebanese history. You cannot completely erase it. We talked a bit about the Lebanese Forces, about Samir Geagea, the party’s leader. We talked about how the Palestinians are barred from many jobs in Lebanon. We had to make it clear, as much as possible. We thought about it too in the subtitles. In the Lebanese version, we translated Lebanese Forces to “FL,” [the French acronym]. In the American and international versions, we translated the Lebanese Forces as “the Christian party,” even though it’s not officially a Christian party, although all its members are Christians. We had to make it understood by the foreign audience. There were two or three details that foreign audiences might not have gotten, but they understand that the story is about somebody seeking justice and about what happened in the past. At the end of the day The Insult is the story of two people. One who is seeking justice and believes in justice and thinks it serves him well, and another who does not have faith in the justice system. And then, they cross paths. It’s about the search for dignity. This is what the film is about, and is a universal theme. Any audience can understand it.
MY: What have you been able to determine from the reactions of Lebanese audiences, who have a much more visceral understanding of the film?
ZD: All I can tell you is that there was an outpouring for the film, especially from within the Christian community. I never know the other side, but I’m curious to know it. I know the film has shaken certain things. That’s the feedback. I’ve had a lot of people come to me feeling emotional after the film. They were saying, “Finally someone is talking about [the impact of the Lebanese civil war], this is what should be done.” But when we wrote the story, we did not aim to settle accounts or send historical messages.
If you make films that are written to send a specific message, you are more likely to fail because they become artificial. You only have to think in terms of dramatic writing. For screenplays and films, you have to build your characters and tell a story. You have to think about who your characters are, what their journey is, how they start and end. You have to think about the midpoint and the climax of the story, and how characters evolve. These are the screenwriting issues that you have to deal with, not socio-political issues. Subconsciously, we have something going on, but it’s not explicitly discussed initially. For The Insult, we first created a summary: What’s Tony Hanna’s story? You have to get to know your character, even if you don’t talk about it on screen. We said Tony Hanna is a mechanic, a very proud mechanic. Facing him, you have this lawyer. You have to build a character. It’s a character piece, not a historical piece. I never do historical pieces.
MY: You are speaking about your script, and that’s immediately something that hits viewers in seeing the film. Many Lebanese films don’t have tight scripts, so they lose momentum halfway through. In your case, what did you and your ex-wife do to avoid the pitfalls of other films? What were the rules you followed?
ZD: You learn the craft. We’ve done several movies together, and we keep learning. You should never talk at your audience or take them by the hand and say “Look, I’m going to explain certain things.” That always looks contrived. The audience has an incredible capacity for understanding things. You have to write a film in an organic way without having to send a message. It’s a screenwriting craft. It is not a political craft. There are schools for it. In life, people talk over each other and interrupt each other. It’s not theater, it’s not staged. It’s just dialogue writing, but you have to have a story.
If we succeeded, it’s because I believe that at the very bottom there was a story that held together. It starts with a character who is living well, whose wife is about to have a daughter, and whose life is good until it gets interrupted six minutes into the film when somebody knocks at his door and tells him that he has to fix his drain. His world has suddenly been shaken and something has been awakened. It’s called an inciting incident. I did not invent that idea. Aristotle, Molière, and Shakespeare wrote about it. The main character has something happen to him very early on and new elements arrive. We sat down to write a story that was organic. We wanted to create a courtroom drama, and figure out the dialogue, but it was actually relatively easy.
MY: Did you watch Lebanese films, or other films, while making The Insult?
ZD: I watched a lot of American movies. I watched The Verdict, Philadelphia, Twelve Angry Men, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Insider. I have seen very influential films such as Rango, an animated feature about a chameleon, and The Story of Qiu Ju, a film by Zhang Yimou. I saw Memories of Murder, a Korean movie. When you start writing, you sort of know what you are going for, but you sometimes need inspiration. When you look at other films, you ask yourself how the directors achieved certain things. You ask yourself what the inciting incident was for each director, at which time. I dressed Wajdi Wehbeh, the character played by Nabil Salameh, like James Mason in The Verdict, which I’ve seen 20 times. I wanted to show that Wajdi Wehbeh is a very prominent lawyer, has a very luxurious and sophisticated office with a big staff. He is cocky but he tells the truth. Facing him, there is a very naive lawyer who thinks she can win the case, but there is no guarantee that she can. She has one assistant, whereas he has eight. These are the things we thought about.
During this time, all I did was write, exchange ideas with my mother because she is a legal consultant, and watch movies. I watched courthouse dramas to understand what percentage of these movies had courthouse scenes. In Judgment at Nuremberg, 90 percent of the movie happens in court.
MY: Which director has really inspired you because he or she deals with some of the themes to which you feel attracted?
ZD: I have always liked Sidney Lumet’s movies because he always questioned the system and the establishment. Oliver Stone does that too. These are the directors whose movies I have always loved, because in a general sense American cinema does that better than any other cinema. In American cinema, they look at the world in an Orwellian way so that David is fighting Goliath. The system is against you. It’s a part of American culture. I find American films more advanced than French cinema, where the system is not questioned. People are too comfortable in France. They like their state. They criticize it and they don’t like their politicians, but they’re living comfortably in their state and don’t want to change it. That is why I find Lumet and Stone’s movies so significant.
MY: Let’s discuss you a bit. You grew up in Lebanon during the war years.
ZD: I was there from 1975 to 1983, when I left for the United States. At that time my parents were very involved in the left-wing movement.
MY: Where did you grow up in Beirut?
ZD: On Corniche al-Mazra‘a. Next to the Abdel Nasser mosque.
MY: When I saw your 1998 film West Beirut I wondered whether cinema was your form of escape from Lebanon’s wartime situation. Was it?
ZD: I am asked that question all the time: Where did it start? I can’t put my finger on it. Did it start because my father used to take us to the movies when I was younger, even before the war? There was a cinema to which I used to go called Cinema Embassy, in Ashrafieh. In the Zaidanieh neighborhood of West Beirut, there was also one called Cinema Aida. My cousin and I used to spend a lot of time there, as it was cheap. We also used to go to Cinema Semiramis and Cinema Beirut. Did it start that early? Was it in my subconscious? Is it because of a movie? I can’t tell. I have been thinking about it for 20 years. I don’t know where it started, but it did.
MY: Yet West Beirut suggests it started as the story of two boys caught in the stifling atmosphere of wartime Beirut, whose escape was cinema.
ZD: During the war, from 1975 until 1983, we went to see a lot of movies in the Hamra neighborhood. There were so many great theaters there, such as Cinema Piccadilly, Cinema Hamra, and Cinema Pavillon. We spent much time there because there was no other form of entertainment, at least not in my family. So when did this thing start? I could ask the same question to you. When did your journey start? You don’t know. It’s unconscious. I have seen a lot of movies, but a lot of people have seen a lot of movies. It’s normal.
But I do remember that my dad, back in the 1960s when we were living in Africa where he used to teach for the United Nations, bought me a projector from Bulgaria. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a film projector where you would buy a 35 millimeter film, thread it, and roll it by hand, image by image. And in each image, there were subtitles and drawings. I had a box of all these movies, each story composed of 35 frames, not moving films. They used to buy them from communist countries. I wish I could find those films today. I saw them compulsively very early on. Maybe the idea of watching a projected image in a dark room started back then. I’ve been begging my mom to find these films, but we can’t find them. Maybe I’d be able to look at them and say, “Oh my God, I remember that first impulse when we saw those projected films.”
MY: What strikes me is that although you are Lebanese, grew up in a Lebanese atmosphere, and have made a lot of films centered around Lebanese themes, you’re very much influenced by American cinema. To what extent is that true?
ZD: The reason I am influenced by American cinema is not just because we watch a lot of American films, but because I studied there. I graduated from San Diego State University. I moved to Los Angeles in 1985 and started working on American films at the time. So, certainly, the knowhow and the cultural exposure I had is from there. Had I emigrated to Moscow back in the 1980s, I would have done Russian-style movies. Had I emigrated to France, I would have made French movies. To tell you the truth, I don’t like French movies. I think they have a lot of weaknesses. French cinema from the last 20–30 years does not speak to me. Korean cinema, on the other hand, is very interesting because Koreans have social problems after having passed through many crises, dictatorships, upheavals, and a long occupation by the Japanese. Themes in Korean cinema are always revolving around shame, honor, betrayal, and extreme love. They are introducing some of the greatest cinema today. I am a big fan of Korean cinema. But again I find some American cinema to be ahead of its time. That’s how I feel.
MY: American cinema tells a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s very clear cut. Your films do too.
ZD: Yes, I am very structured, but people say that it is American cinema. It is not American cinema. The three-act and five-act structures were not invented by me or by Hollywood. They were introduced 4,000 years ago. Aristotle wrote about it, and since then, all the big plays and movies have always followed the three-act or five-act story structures: Introduction, development, conclusion. Or as the French present it, thesis, antithesis, synthesis. That’s how it goes.
Now, there are indeed some films that broke that structure. Francis Ford Coppola did it very successfully in one of his masterpieces, Rumble Fish—one of his best movies that nobody saw. He broke the structure. I am comfortable working in the more established structures, but that does not mean I would not break it in the future. I like tight scripts and I don’t like abstract and analytical films, or passive and contemplative characters. A character could start by being passive, but at some point he has to take control of his life and has to become an active part of the movie. Your character has to want something. A lot of movies in Europe and the Middle East have passive characters, and that’s why they fail.
In The Insult we asked: What does Tony Hanna want? He wants to win the court hearing. What does he need? He needs to hear about his past. What does Yasser want? To fix the drain. What does he need? To believe in justice. Every character that I have created has wants and needs. What does Tarek want in West Beirut? He wants to develop his film. What does he need? To grow up. What does Doctor Amin Jaafari want in my film The Attack? He wants to find out why his wife perpetrated a suicide attack. What does he need? To understand his belief and realize why his idealistic view of the Middle East is false. In every movie I make, I define each character’s wants and needs from the very beginning. A lot of films in the Middle East do not define these things. Very few people work with that perspective. But a film is not a drawing, it’s a story told in images.
MY: One thing that struck me in The Insult is that it revolves around a dispute that gradually spins out of control. It seems that as you were putting together your script, there were many risks involved. In other words as the situation in the story goes out of control between the characters—reflecting Lebanese society’s propensity to allow things to get out of control—there was a risk that you might also lose control of your film. But you went ahead anyway. Why?
ZD: The question forces me to think about the first impulse to make the movie. Why was I attracted to the idea that something so insignificant would become a national affair? It’s because we lived it. It’s not only because we grew up in Lebanon in a time of war. I have always felt as if I could fall victim to something that was stupid and that could become a big issue, from which I could not extricate myself. Ever since I was young, my dad would warn me to watch my words. He would tell me that my words could offend some people. We live in a very passionate and fragile society. Lebanon is very fragile. It’s not a place where you have a safety zone where you can share words and ideas without fear of something happening. There are questions that you really have to be careful about. The idea of Tony Hanna telling a Palestinian “I wish [Ariel] Sharon had wiped you all out,” is certain to create a crisis. If you insult someone’s religion, prophet, or holy book, you can have riots in the street.
The idea for The Insult came after I had insulted a man who had dropped water on me. I realized from his accent that he was Palestinian, and I knew which words would hurt his feelings. When I made the remark about Sharon, like Hanna’s phrase in the film, Joelle, who was standing behind me, told me to apologize. I went down to apologize, and the guy was very hurt, but he didn’t react. Two days later, I woke up and thought, “What if this film starts with an insult, and instead of the main character going down to apologize for his words, he asks for an apology and the other guy refuses?” This is how the story started. It was a real incident. It’s the spark that made me think of the story, but the whole story did not happen because of this fight. We have 40 years of socio-political upheaval on our shoulders. It has all been registered on our personal USBs.
This incident in which I was involved happened by coincidence, but I decided to try to use it. I took about 200 pages of notes, just based on that incident. I realized that our very rich past was coming out on paper. I went to the mountain town of Bikfayya, from where Joelle comes, to write in her parents’ apartment. And then I put it to sleep. After my film The Attack was made and released in 2012, the producer came to me and asked if I had a new idea.
I’m speaking spontaneously. Can you remind me of your last question?
MY: It was about the risk that your film might spin out of control, just as the story told in The Insult did.
ZD: Joelle and I have more experience today than we did a few years ago, and were able to avoid this. After we had secured funding and started writing the film, I suggested to Joelle, who comes from a family that sympathized with the Christian parties during the war [against the Palestinians], that she write the parts for the pro-Palestinian lawyer, while I write the scene in which the Christian leader Samir Geagea appears. My parents are very left-wing, pro-Palestinian to the core. Yet the character who most represents me is the lawyer Wajdi Wehbeh, and I rewrote his lines after my film The Attack was boycotted because I had filmed in Israel. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign targeting the film aggravated me and that was my response. I became so adamant about making my point after they boycotted my movie. Practically all the dialogue was rewritten just to attack the BDS movement, the left, and the Al-Akhbar newspaper. As I wrote, I was thinking about how much these people frustrated me by preventing The Attack from being shown. They oppressed me during a time where we were suffering. With a strike of a pen, they labeled me a Zionist and someone seeking normalization with Israel, without even seeing the movie. It was very hypocritical. How could the BDS movement call for a boycott against an artist? On what basis? Who gave them the permission to tell Ziad Doueiri where to put his camera? I am free to go film in Israel. As an artist, I have that right.
So when we started writing the film, we were writing it because we had a good story and I became obsessed with the character of Wajdi Wehbeh. He became my character. He is the character who has the most dialogue. He speaks my words. Everything he says, I really believe. You evolve in life. I grew up thinking that Geagea and the Lebanese Forces were evil, but I’ve changed. I looked at the other side. That’s what we do for a living, we look at the other side.
MY: Where do you see Lebanese cinema today?
MY: But it has improved in recent years. It was nonexistent 10–15 years ago.
ZD: I have a very sober outlook on Lebanese cinema because I know that they are teaching it the wrong way at university. Cinema starts with a screenplay, not with actors, or Botox, or financing. You have to teach the bottom line of the craft. Writing a script is fundamental, but it is nonexistent in Lebanon. Not a single university teaches it. Some people say I’m elitist, but that’s not true. I would love to open a free school and teach screenplay writing.
MY: You began your career on the technical side, in cinematography, not so much on the writing side. What was your trajectory?
ZD: I had always been very interested in images, what you film and how you compose the lighting. That was it. That was what I wanted to do. Films like Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio with cinematography by Ron Fricke, as well as Chronos and Baraka, both directed by Fricke, had a huge impact on me visually. I tried to imitate them. I bought a Super 8 camera in college and tried to replicate the same time-lapse images. I could not match their visual poetry. These films are masterful in their craft and storytelling. And then, at one point in my life, I felt like I knew enough about it. Suddenly, I started to evolve into storytelling. I had stories to tell. I felt like I could not do so if I remained a cinematographer. You tell stories when you are a screenwriter. And I between studying, teaching myself screenwriting. I did not go to school for that. I had to read scripts and taught myself how to write and began directing.
MY: Lebanon has many stories to tell, and yet very few people have actually done so, whether in films or novels.
ZD: Lebanon has a lot of stories because we have a lot of conflict. The trick is to make these universal. I don’t want to be making movies that can only be understood by Lebanese, I want to make films that can be seen in Korea or Latin America and be regarded as having universal themes. American directors always base their stories on universality: love, hate, betrayal, justice, greed. The Insult is about a man who is seeking justice, that’s it. When the Spanish public saw it, they totally related to it because after General Franco died, the page was turned so quickly. There wasn’t a national dialogue that followed; reconciliation wasn’t brought up. Just like in Lebanon. To go back to your question, there are a lot of stories to be told in Lebanon because it’s a country full of conflict but it’s up to you to be smart and find a way to make it palatable for different audiences.
MY: Today you are working primarily in France, where you are directing a successful television series, Baron Noir. Have you learned a lot technically from working in France, and how has it affected your film projects?
ZD: When you are a director, you take on a task and think of a way of visually bringing yourself into a film. When I was hired to direct this political series, I looked at the material and did not understand 50 percent of it because it was so involved with French politics and how the Socialist Party looks from the inside. It’s written by two insiders, one of them who was a Socialist Party militant for 25 years. He wrote speeches for Ségolène Royal, Francois Hollande, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He knows that gang inside out. When I started reading it, I decided to look at the script on a human level rather than a political one. I looked at themes such as politics, manipulation, pursuit of power, deception, lies, affairs. This is what I was fishing for.
I started asking the writers to go into that direction. All that allowed me to experience and experiment on the set with a very fluid camera, because there was so much dialogue. You will notice that in the episodes the camera moves a lot. If I’m going to shoot a scene of two people talking the way we are now, it would be boring. I thought about how I was going to take a dialogue of four minutes and make it visually interesting on screen. I also wanted to do something in Paris where it wouldn’t look like a typical French film, shot from the rooftops of Paris. I told the producers that I wasn’t interested in making another Ratatouille movie. I wanted to shoot in La Défense, which is an ultramodern part of Paris where nobody shoots films. The producers told me that wouldn’t be credible, which I didn’t understand because it was still Paris. It took me five weeks until they were convinced, and then we created the very modern look in this series. I used these lessons and applied them in The Insult. Then I came back and shot the second season of Baron Noir using lessons learnt from The Insult. Basically, it’s an exercise. The more you work, the more you try things and learn.
MY: Now that your film is Lebanon’s entry for the Academy Awards, where do you see it going from here? And where are you going from here?
ZD: It’s not in my hands anymore. It’s up to the academy to vote. I’m very happy that it got selected by Lebanon, because there was a point when I doubted that this would happen because of The Attack. You can’t imagine how anxious I was during that time. I thought people would use The Attack to forbid the release of The Insult in Lebanon. And if the film had not been released there, then Lebanon could not have nominated it. When we presented the film to the Lebanese authorities, there was a lot of back and forth over the film. Although in Lebanon, you don’t have to lie to be banned, you can be banned for saying the truth. I was very happy that General Security behaved rationally. This is my reward, that the film came out in Lebanon and that people saw it. I finally got what I wanted. If we get nominated, it would be the cherry on the cake. But that you can’t predict.
MY: Can you give us a hint regarding your next project? Is it based in Lebanon?
ZD: No, it’s a film about the Camp David accords. Something very dramatic happened during the thirteen days when the agreements were concluded. Each of the characters was very interesting in his own right. I like making movies that aren’t black and white. Dramatically speaking, it is more interesting when characters are ambivalent and complex. I like gray areas.