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A Lebanese director's new film opens old wounds

A Lebanese director's new film opens old wounds
Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri during an interview Jan. 24 in Paris. (Christophe Ena / Associated Press)

In movie theaters in Lebanon, “The Insult” is preceded by a terse disclaimer: The views in the film do not represent those of the Lebanese government.

Yet that official unease didn’t stop the Lebanese ministry of culture from choosing “The Insult” as the country’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards, and last month it was named one of the five finalists in the foreign language category.

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The government’s ambivalence speaks to both Lebanon’s on-again, off-again love affair with the film’s director, Ziad Doueiri, and the difficult relationship many Lebanese still have with the subject matter: the country’s long civil war.

The internecine conflict, not unlike the one currently raging next door in Syria in its brutality, dragged on from 1975 to 1990. It embroiled the country’s 18 religious sects, along with regional and international governments, and left up to 150,000 dead.

The war’s legacy remains. Nobody forgets that some politicians were once warlords. Speaking with the “wrong” accent in some areas of the country can still elicit disdain. And officials often invoke the war to explain away Lebanon’s infrastructure failures, including the lack of round-the-clock electricity for most residents.

Nestled among the glitzy cement-and-glass skyscrapers in the capital, Beirut, some buildings still bear the pockmarks and jagged tears of bullets and shells.

But the war’s history is absent from textbooks, and there has yet to be a full reckoning of its horrors in Lebanese collective memory, with more than 10,000 people still never accounted for and presumed dead.

“History books stop at 1975 because none of the political parties agree on the other one’s narrative. There has not been a common denominator unifying the narrative of the war,” said Doueiri.

“The issues have never been resolved in Lebanon’s psyche.”

In “The Insult,” a simple argument in modern-day Beirut about a leaking water pipe escalates into a courtroom drama, with Tony, a right-wing Lebanese Christian, pitted against Yasser, a Palestinian who, despite living for decades in Beirut, is still viewed as an interloper.

On the protagonists’ shoulders are not mere issues of plumbing but the full weight of the decades-old civil war.

“When the Second World War ended, France and Germany started on a reconciliation process that has made them the foundation of Europe,” Doueiri said. “Lebanon hasn’t done that. The war was done, the page was turned and everything was shoved under the bed.”

“There hasn’t been a dialogue where people can vent, yell at each other. … A quick fix can work initially to contain and stop the violence, but then you have to start doing therapy.”

Doueiri speaks from experience. He’s the son of secular Lebanese Muslims who were involved with Al Mourabitoun (The Sentinels), a socialist pan-Arabic movement that fought alongside the Palestinian Fatah faction against Lebanese Christian militias.

When Bachir Gemayel, the Christian militia leader who became president in 1982, was assassinated a few weeks after his election, “it was a big celebration for my family,” said the 54-year-old filmmaker.

“I grew up all my life thinking this is what should happen to all of them.”

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In 1983, he left Beirut for Los Angeles to study cinema, but returned in 1998 to film “West Beirut,” his first feature, a rumination on the civil war through the eyes of three adolescents — two Muslim boys and a Christian girl.

Doueiri said he rediscovered Lebanon as a place where “the guy you used to consider the enemy is now working on your film.”

And when he found himself three years ago insulting a Palestinian man in a fight over a leaky water pipe, telling him that the wartime prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, “should have erased you all,” it was the kernel that developed into “The Insult.”

“I used to believe in one narrative. I just now believe in two,” he said. “So what I did in ‘The Insult’ is simply understand the side that I had fought against all my life.

“The script is a result of my examination of my past. I reconciled because I sat down and listened to the other’s narrative. If I did it, I think it’s probably possible for others to do it.”

But many in Lebanon would rather not.

“What is the use of opening this old file now, after the dangerous transformations that have struck [Lebanon] and changed the aims and sides of the conflict?” wrote columnist Abdo Wazen in the London-based Al Hayat daily last fall. “This issue was closed years ago and is no longer important in the current period.”

Lebanon of course has more urgent things to worry about: Arab Spring uprisings, Islamic State and millions of Syrian refugees.

But much of the controversy surrounding “The Insult” has less to do with the film than with the filmmaker and his 2012 movie “The Attack,” about a Palestinian suicide bomber.

He visited Tel Aviv to shoot a number of scenes despite Lebanon banning its citizens from associating with Israelis or traveling to Israel.

The movie never played in Lebanon and was boycotted by the Arab League.

Doueiri continued to travel in and out of Lebanon, but last September, on his way back from the premiere of “The Insult” at the Venice Film Festival, he was detained at the international airport in Beirut. He appeared before a military court only to later be released without charge.

He had run afoul of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement, which seeks to hold Israel to account over what it says are violations of Palestinian rights and international law.

It called for “The Insult” to be banned. Jordan and the seven Persian Gulf countries all complied. So did the Palestinian Authority, which was particularly galling to Doueiri because it meant many Palestinians would not get to see the much-lauded performance of their compatriot Kamel El Basha.

But the Lebanese Censorship Bureau did not acquiesce, and “The Insult” became a hit there, topping the box office.

Its success was not evenly spread. Doueiri said that in Muslim-majority areas of Beirut, theaters showing the film “were rather empty,” but in Christian-dominated areas they were “packed.”

Christians felt the movie spoke to them, he said, while among the Palestinian population “the reaction was still very much divided.”

“The Palestinians were not only victims but they victimized other people, and that’s hard to swallow when you have nurtured the idea of victimhood for such a long time,” Doueiri said.

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“But that’s the truth. We’re only telling the truth. Subjects like this will always divide people and that’s fine, that’s what we do for a living.”

Doueiri co-wrote the script for “The Insult” with his ex-wife, Joelle Touma, a Lebanese Christian of the very sort he had once hated.

While their collaboration might be seen as a reconciliation of sorts, Doueiri said national reconciliation was never the aim of the movie.

“We do not have a message. We have a story, the story of those characters who had a bloody past and how they’re going to heal and bridge the gap together. Is it possible? We think it is.”

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