Foreign Contenders: Ziad Doueiri on Adapting American Courtroom Drama Tropes Into Lebanon’s The Insult 

Divisiveness is universal. That ironic truth is the key that allows people to understand and relate to geographically distant conflicts.

Similarities carry more weight than obscure specificities. Director Ziad Doueiri’s most recent feature, The Insult, is a prime example of such notion. Despite unfolding in Beirut, Lebanon and dissecting a sociopolitical dispute endemic to the Middle East, the stubborn convictions of its protagonists and their reluctance to seek common ground are easily adaptable to other latitudes, including the United States today.

In his follow up to the highly polemic, The Attack, which he defiantly shot in Israel, Doueiri examines the increasingly escalating hatred between a right-wing Christian brute, Tony Hannah (Adel Karam), and a Palestinian refuge, Yasser (Kamel El Basha), who has been known to resort to physical violence to defend his honor. A seemingly inconsequential transgression between two private parties evolves into a widespread battle between opposing individuals. Tony, who at first only demanded an apology, uses incendiary language that pushes Yasser over the edge, setting in motion an engaging courtroom drama, crafted with the American tradition in mind, with no clear victor in sight.

El Basha, a theater actor making his major screen debut, won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, and the film is now one of the nine shortlisted films in the race for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscars, accomplishments that are exponentially more commendable considering the extreme reactions it produced at home and in other Muslim countries. Unabashedly unafraid, Doueiri, who worked on several of Quentin Tarantino’s early projects, discussed his Hollywood influences, being shaped by war, and Beirut’s intrinsic sexiness.

Director Ziad Doueiri on the set of The Insult, Lebanon’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category. Photograph courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): After The Attack, which you shot in Israel, you worked in TV series internationally before making The Insult. What propelled you to want to return to make a film about Lebanon and divisiveness there?

Ziad Doueiri (ZD): I’m often asked that question. Lebanon is the place where I grew up. I was very young when the war started. When you grow up in a place where there’s war, it marks you in a negative way, but it also marks you in a positive way, because it leaves a very strong impression in you. It’s not a little incident when you go through a civil war. It’s a big thing. It’s not just a car accident. It works you up. It works your family up. I’ve been exposed to one of the complex conflicts in the world. It’s polarizing, it’s very passionate, and I was part of it. I was not reading about it in The New York Times, or studying it at UCLA, I was living it.

In 1983, I left to come and study in the US. I left, and I didn’t return in nearly 20 years, but that past remains with you. With time, with distance, you look at it from a different perspective. You start looking at who are your enemies, or who are what you considered your enemy to be. After I returned, I met a woman, and we ended up dating, and we ended up getting married, and we ended up having a child, and we ended up getting divorced, and that woman is the co-screenwriter of The Insult.

She comes from a right-wing family, and I come from a very left-wing family. She was considered, back in the 70s and 80s, the enemy because that’s how the country was divided. It was Christians vs. Muslims. It was the pro-Palestinians vs. the anti-Palestinians. It’s very complex. Getting to know her also helped me understand the other perspective, because I grew up hating her people. When we sat down to write the script, we decided to swap roles. I said, “All of your dialogue regarding defending the Palestinians, you write it, and defending the Christians, I’ll write it.”

MM: Logistically, how difficult was it to make a film in Lebanon?

ZD: Logistically, it was very easy. We didn’t have any problems. The financing came very easily. It’s a tiny budget, so you struggle to do it, but we did it in fairly comfortable conditions. The Lebanese government was very supportive. My main problems started once the film was released, because that’s when the boycott groups started, and that’s when I started having political problems. It wasn’t during the filming or during the writing, but after that.

MM: Were you anticipating the level of controversy that The Insult has caused in the country and across the Middle East?

ZD: I did a film a few years ago called The Attack. I filmed it in Israel. In the Middle East, if you’re an Arab and you set foot in Israel, it’s looked upon as a very bad sign. You’re accused of being Zionist. You’re accused of all these stupid things. I did it, because I believed that it was okay for me to do it in Israel. For me, I’m thinking about the film, I’m not thinking about the politics. Once I finished The Attack, I came back, and I made it public that I filmed it in Israel. I could have hidden it, and nobody would have known about it, but I’m not embarrassed to say it, I’m proud to say that I filmed there. The groups, who are anti-Israeli, made a huge campaign, and they managed to convince all the Arab countries not to show The Attack. It was banned, officially. Five years later, I’m doing The Insult, and the people who boycotted The Attack reopened the file, and mounted the attack again. That’s when it got a bit scary, because I thought they would not let the film open in Beirut. If they wouldn’t have it open, I wouldn’t have been able to release it, and I wouldn’t have been able to send it as an official selection of the Lebanese government for the Oscars. The government, surprisingly, came to my side, and they released it, and they submitted it for the Oscars. That’s why the BDS Movement made an accusation to the government and I was arrested, but I was released the next day. I did not have a hard time making the movie. I had a hard time negotiating the release of the movie. Those who attacked the film have not seen it at all. The film talks about reconciliation, and about understanding your enemy’s perspective, about empathy with they guy you’ve hated all of your life. Those people do not want that. There are people who prefer to have conflict, rather than peace.

Adel Karam as Tony Hannah (L) and Kamel El Basha as Yasser Abdallah Salameh (R) in The Insult

MM: Tell me about the casting processspecifically, about finding an actor to play the Palestinian character. 

ZD: It was actually pretty simple. I went back to Beirut, and I talked to a casting director, and I said, “These are the character’s profiles show me who you’ve got.” We had a very long list of actors. We had to see 500 actors to find those roles. The tricky part was casting the Palestinian actor, Kamel El Basha. I cast him on Skype. He lives in Jerusalem. He’s somebody who’s never done a movie before. He was just a theatre actor, but I thought he had something interesting in him. I thought he fit the character of Yasser. We flew him in, and I did some rehearsals with him, and that’s how we did it.

MM: Once on set, what’s your approach with the cast? Do you rely on rehearsals, or is that not a big part of your process with actors?  

ZD: You’ve got to keep the tension going, and at the same time, as a director, you have to always be generous with your actors. You’ve got to explain to them what’s going on, you can’t let them off without doing that. You’ve got to always explain to them what is happening, without overdoing it. I think in all of my films, 90 percent of the rehearsals we do them during the casting process. I spend a lot of time looking and looking, and once I’ve chosen my actors I know I did 90 percent of my work. The rest is just details. I don’t over-rehearse.  I over-rehearse during the casting.

MM: Tell me about the visual approach to the film. It takes place in the summer, so it’s a very luminous film. How was that process of capturing Beirut at this particular time?

ZD: We wanted to create a warm atmosphere. Beirut is warm. We wanted to show that there’s hope. Warm light is warm to the senses. It’s not a cold film. It’s a film about a lot of emotions. There’s a lot of endearing feelings in the film. It’s about people struggling a lot, but there’s tenderness. It’s not a cold movie. It’s not an intellectual movie. It plays a lot on pathos. Arabs are very hot headed. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s not that good. This is how we approached the look. We wanted it to be warm, and we wanted it to be fluid. We wanted to show that Beirut is sexy. Beirut is sexy. For those who don’t know, it’s not a typical desert land. It’s a very metropolitan, cosmopolitan town. It’s dense. It’s like Hong Kong. It’s like Tokyo. It’s messier, but I’ve always kept a good feeling about Beirut throughout my life. The sets were always crowed. There’s always a lot of colors and warm light. We warmed it in postproduction a bit more. It’s about the sweat and the spaces. The garage is an interesting garage. It’s about all of these choices. We wanted to always have a lot of windows and have a lot of light coming through them. I choose all of my sets to be very open. We selected the sets so that there’s always this warm lighting coming in, to give it this warm tone about Beirut.

MM: Although the protagonists are too unwilling to come to an agreement, the women in their lives—including those that are at the center of the courtroom scenes—are strong forces in this story. 

ZD: We gave female roles importance: the judge, Tony’s wife, Yasser’s wife, and the lawyer. We made a very strong decision for Arab women in the film to be portrayed in a very positive light. That’s not accidental, that’s on purpose. We wanted to show that women in the Middle East are probably smarter than men. Seriously, if there are so many problems in the Middle East today, it’s because women are not in power. When we empower women, I think that’s the only hope for this part of the world. It’s so fucked up, this part of the world. It’s not only because of religion and it’s not only because of dictatorships. It’s because of the mentality. That’s what needs to be changed, not only the dictatorship. A dictatorship, you can bring down in 24 hours. The mentality takes years and years. We chose Rita Hayek, Diamand Bou Abboud, and Julia Kassar, to play those roles because they are strong roles, because they offer the counterpoint to the male stubbornness. The males are stubborn in the film, they’re thugs. Tony is a thug. The other guy, he’s not a thug like Tony, but he’s still a hardheaded guy. We wanted to show the tender side of their lives, which is with their women.

MM: The Insult and The Attack are about characters unable to understand one another. In this case, pride and hatred dictated how they related to each other. Are these character flaws what intrigue you the most? 

ZD: All of my characters, basically, are hidden inside of themselves. They have to overcome big obstacles, but they are not just outside obstacles, there are inner obstacles. Like Dr. Amin Jaafari in The Attack, his world comes crumbling down when he has to face himself and how he views the world. The Insult is the same. The Insult is about two people suing each other in court, but what is it really about? It’s about Tony healing his past, and for Yasser, the Palestinian man, is about believing in justice again. These are their flaws. Tony is a thug, he has a wound, and Yasser has a big wound as well, it’s just different. They both think they are very different, only slowly to find out that they are so similar. They have the same principles, both are kind, both are generous, both hate Chinese products. There are a lot of those things. I always start with flawed characters. They have a lot of flaws, and slowly they have to overcome them. It’s through this lawsuit, as they fight each other in court, that they find themselves.

Adel Karam as Tony Hannah in The Insult

 

MM: How effective do you think courtroom dramas are in Lebanon? Were there elements that you had to adapt to match the Lebanese idiosyncrasy? 

ZD: They loved it, because they have never seen a courtroom drama in Lebanon. It’s new. It’s the first time. I’ve taken a classic American formula, the courtroom drama, and I shot it like you would shoot an American movie. You could think you’re shooting an American movie, except it’s in Arabic. I designed my shots, I wrote the scenes with Joelle, and we composed everything like if it was an American movie, because that was my school. The only thing that I couldn’t do is the jury. In the American system there is a jury and in Lebanon we don’t have a jury in court. It does not exist. It’s a judge who decides the final verdict. I told my y mom, who was the legal advisor because she is a lawyer, ‘Why don’t we do it with a jury, like in America? They sit in a box on the left, 12 people, and they vote.”  She said people in Lebanon wouldn’t believe it, because in Lebanon you do not have a jury system, you have a judge system. Finally we found a good solution. Instead of having one judge, we brought three judges, so at least they can vote like a jury. In Lebanon, you can have three judges on big cases. Normally, it’s always one judge, but when it’s a very complex case, like a big crime or constitutional things, you bring in three judges. I told my mom, “We’re going to bring in three judges,” and she said it was okay.

MM: After all that has happened, do you consider The Insult to be a controversial film, or a film created from a controversial point of view? 

ZD: It depends where it is. In Lebanon and the Middle East, it’s very controversial. It was banned in Ramallah, the Palestinian territory, recently. The Jordanian government said, “If you want a permit to release the film in Jordan you have to cut that scene that scene with the man in the wheelchair.” That character is Jordanian. I said, “It’s a 6 and a half minute scene.” They said, “You’ve got to cut it.” I said, “I won’t cut it. Fuck you, I’m not going to show the film in Jordan.” It’s very controversial. There were demonstrations against it in Tunisia recently. I did not want to make it political. I did not set out to make a political movie. It’s just a movie. There are some political undertones, but people are very sensitive about certain touchy subjects. I was not afraid at all. This is what we do for a living. What am I going to do? I was sincere in my film. We’re not here to create provocation. Never. This is not the purpose itself. Believe me, I didn’t sit down with Joelle and said, “Lets write a film that is going to create controversy.” Never. You are fuck up if you do that. You don’t do that. I know it’s a sensitive subject. I knew it, but I did not know it was going to create that much controversy. It’s a lot more than I anticipated. It almost didn’t open in Beirut, and now we’re number one at the box office. MM

The Insult is currently playing in Los Angeles and New York, courtesy of Cohen Media Group. 

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