Eight years ago, something quite remarkable happened in the Israeli film industry.
Ziad Doueiri came to Israel to make a film.
A foreign filmmaker shooting a film in Israel was not all that unusual, but a Lebanese Muslim filmmaker — that was ground-breaking.
To Israel’s credit, Doueiri was given the freedom and support he needed to shoot his film. The film, “The Attack,” was about a Tel Aviv-based Israeli Arab doctor, highly respected by his Jewish and non-Jewish colleagues, who finds out that the suicide bombing that took place not too far from the hospital where he worked was perpetrated by his own wife. The film, a powerful look at the integration or non-integration of a highly respected citizen of Israel who was an Arab, was powerful. Not only was it screened theatrically, but it also was shown at Jewish film festivals all across North America.
Doueiri, whom I met at the time, told me that he was raised in Beirut to hate Jews and Christians, but had an eye-opening experience when he went to San Diego to study filmmaking and actually met and worked with Jews and Christians, some of whom became close friends. The hatred with which he was raised quickly turned into a need to better understand difference and causes of conflict. After years in Hollywood, he returned to Lebanon in 1998 to make his first feature film, “West Beirut.” Shortly after, he fell in love with a Lebanese Christian woman, whom he married and who co-wrote “The Attack” and his new film release, “The Insult,” opening today in Manhattan.
“The Insult,” set in today’s Beirut, is about a Palestinian, Yasser, who is assigned by the local municipality to fix a code violation, a drainpipe that runs out onto the street. The pipe comes from the apartment of Lebanese Christian, Tony, who is angry that someone came to make the repair without first getting his permission. Yasser — an interesting choice of name — who lives in a nearby refugee camp, and Tony, a Muslim with a strong bias against Palestinians, begin to argue.
Symbolically, the pipe that drains off residue is broken, insults are thrown, and a full-fledged conflict caused by this minor plumbing problem erupts. Writer/filmmaker Doueiri takes a story about a minor infraction and builds a motion picture about how one insult leads to another, and how indifference and an inability to communicate between two people — two sides — leads to disruption, hurt, family dissolution, and eventual disaster.
Neither the Lebanese Christian nor the Palestinian refugee is able to see the human character of the other. Outside parties try, but they don’t seem to be able to ameliorate the situation. The late Middle East conflict resolution strategist Stephen P. Cohen of Teaneck wrote, “Acceptance means defining an end to the conflict and inviting the former enemy to share in its benefits.” Neither man seems ready to do that.
Cohen continued, “It will be difficult to achieve reconciliation while dignity rests so heavily on success in perpetrating brutality against the other.” When might something that begins as a petty quarrel end? In taking note of the growing disrespect that each side has for the other, Doueiri and co-writer Joelle Touma provide us with an exercise in understanding how conflict evolves.
After making “The Attack” in 2012, Paris-based Doueiri was encouraged to stay away from his home in Lebanon. Because he had broken Lebanese law by visiting and working in Israel, he was considered an outlaw. Here was a Lebanese Muslim employing Israelis and turning his back on the BDS movement. Some people even labeled him a Zionist.
Doueiri eventually did go back to Lebanon and he filmed “The Insult” there, with the assistance of the police and the military. But when he returned to Beirut for the film’s premiere several months ago, he was arrested at the airport for having visited and worked in Israel. His enemies finally had prevailed on the authorities.
After a short detention, the filmmaker was released, and all charges were dropped. In the end, Lebanon submitted “The Insult” as its Oscar submission for best foreign language film.
It is unusual that I turn to a Lebanese film to review in the Jewish Standard. But because Ziad Doueiri’s unusual connection with Israel, and because “The Insult” is a film that struggles with conflict and its possible resolution, it is a must for anyone trying to understand Lebanon, the Middle East, or even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Doueiri masterfully avoids political statements, but he lays out an amazing scenario for analysis. There is no blame placed on any one party. Though this is not a film about Israel, it provides the viewer with an unusual perspective on how not recognizing the humanity another person can lead to disaster, no matter on which side you stand.
Eric Goldman is adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University, where he will teach a course on Israeli cinema this semester. He is also host of “Jewish Cinematheque” on the Jewish Broadcasting Service.