How Lebanon's Foreign-Language Oscar Entry 'The Insult' Survived a Boycott Bid
With Ziad Doueiri having shot parts of his previous film in Israel, the director faced a resurgent backlash — and a military tribunal — when he returned to Lebanon with his follow-up.
Ziad Doueiri was near convinced The Insult, his fifth feature, wouldn’t be cleared for release in Lebanon, let alone be submitted as the country’s foreign-language Oscar entry.
It wasn’t anything to do with this particular film, a tense courtroom thriller in which a rift between a Palestinian Muslim and Lebanese Christian explodes into a cross examination of the sectarian grievances in Beirut society. It was his 2012 drama The Attack, which was banned in 22 Arab countries and saw Doueiri branded an Israeli collaborator and someone who was normalizing relations with Lebanon’s neighbor and long-standing foe. His crime: shooting several scenes in Tel Aviv. (Lebanese citizens are banned from visiting Israel.)
“When you accuse somebody of all those labels, it’s difficult to undo those things,” he says. “When you get accused of being a collaborator or Zionist, it glues itself on you like a leech.”
Doueiri says he was sure The Attack was going to “overshadow” The Insult, and for a few days in September it looked like it might. Flying to Beirut from Venice, where The Insult had its world premiere, winning the best actor award for Palestinian stage and screen star Kamel El Basha, Doueiri was detained at the airport and interrogated by a military tribunal.
Born in Lebanon, Doueiri left for the U.S. during the civil war in the 1980s, and now resides in Paris with dual U.S.-French citizenship. But he made the trip to Beirut numerous times in the five years since The Attack without any hiccups.
“With The Insult they tried to attack it but couldn’t because the film hadn’t broken any laws in Lebanon, it’s 100 percent legal,” he says. “So they went and opened the old file of The Attack.”
The “they” are the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, a growing pro-Palestinian activist group that seeks to cut, among other things, global cultural ties with Israel (a tactic that had a powerful impact on ending Apartheid in South Africa). Doueiri has been a vocal opponent of the boycotts, pointing to the artists within Israel who “fight for the Palestinian cause very effectively” who are being hurt. He says it was the BDS movement that succeeded in its campaign against The Attack, and filed the new complaint with the army in an attempt to do the same for The Insult.
But with Doueiri eventually released without charge (he says it was the same week the Lebanese government was battling ISIS with the help of U.S. and French intelligence and “would have been an embarrassment”), more than three months on and the only major impact has been to force The Insult to be dropped from a festival in the West Bank city of Ramallah in October.
The film was released in Lebanon on Dec. 14 (it goes wide across the region and in the U.S. in January), topping the box office. And Doueiri says it’s because of its underlying message; showing both the faults and, eventually, realizations on opposing sides of the courtroom.
“The film is so positive, in spite of the darkness that’s looming over the Middle East,” he says. “The Middle East has never been in such a bad, hopeless shape, and this film offers a lot of hope, it has a lot of humor and is pretty sympathetic to everyone. You could watch it and think we might not be so doomed after all.”