How Lebanon's Oscar Nominee 'The Insult' Was Nearly Blocked From Theaters

THE INSULT  -Still 1 -Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival

Ziad Doueiri's courtroom thriller faced a boycott related to his previous film that, if successful, would have kept it from qualifying for the Academy Awards.

Of all the movies vying for an Oscar at the Dolby Theatre this year, Ziad Doueiri's The Insult ­­— a courtroom thriller chronicling an argument that erupts between a Muslim and Christian in Beirut and explodes into a broader rift highlighting sectarian fault lines in Lebanese society ­— may well have experienced the most fraught journey getting there.

This troublesome voyage has nothing to do with the production of the film itself — elaborate prosthetic facemasks didn't have to be crafted; functioning WWII fighter planes didn't need to be procured; frantic last-minute reshoots involving replacement actors didn't have to be undertaken.

But what The Insult did face was a concerted boycott campaign aimed at stopping it from hitting theaters. And had this been successful, it simply wouldn't have qualified for the Academy Awards.

"Had the film not been released in Lebanon, we wouldn't be talking right now," says Doueiri, who was detained at the airport in Beirut when he flew back in September after the The Insult first bowed in Venice (where its lead star, Kamel El Basha, won best actor).

The issue at hand wasn't The Insult, but Doueiri's 2011 feature The Attack, parts of which were shot in Tel Aviv in violation of Lebanese laws regarding traveling to Israel (Doueiri, who is based in Paris, holds a French passport).

For this, The Attack was banned across 22 Arab countries, under pressure from the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, a growing pro-Palestinian activist group that, inspired by a tactic used against apartheid South Africa, has been looking to sever global cultural ties with Israel. While The Insult didn't infringe on any laws (Doueiri says it actually "offers a lot hope" and is very positive), it was punished for the director's previous actions.

Thankfully for Doueiri, on this occasion the efforts didn't work — Doueiri was released without charge and a Lebanese judge threw the case out. The Insult, which hit Lebanese theaters in mid-December, went straight to the No. 1 spot, where it remains.

"But I wish we didn't have to go through this, it was a dark chapter and very, very agonizing," says Doueiri, who admits the fight with the BDS group isn't over (and is very likely to affect his future films).

"They're still trying to convince the Egyptians not to release The Insult, the Jordanians not to release it, the Tunisians not to release it," he laments, but says the only success they've had so far has been in the West Bank, "which I think is a big shame, especially as El Basha is Palestinian and was very much looking forward to sharing the prize from Venice and the film with his fellow Palestinians."

The Academy acknowledgement has helped matters, however.

"I was personally accused of being a collaborator, and that's very difficult to cut through, so when we got the nomination it gave us some kind of comfort," says Doueiri. "When you get entangled in this, where you cannot separate politics from the arts, your fight gets stronger. You're fighting for the film, but you're fighting against legal allegations and against political accusations. I consider myself someone who is out there just to tell the truth, not to create sensation."

A version of this story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.