Can a film be the first step towards reconciliation in Lebanon?
The psychological barrier between Muslims and Christians prevails but has Lebanese film director Ziad Doueiri helped close the gap or wedged it farther ajar?
Doueiri tackles the very real issue of religious and political tension in “The Insult,” which tells the story of how a seemingly minor feud between a Christian Arab and a Palestinian Muslim escalates into something bigger.
“When I sat down with Joelle Touma to write, I didn’t think of objectives, in terms of social or sociological or political,” he said referring to his former wife, leaving one wondering whether some tension from a failed marriage was in the script.
“We were just focused on developing a character piece, two people at each other’s throats, seeking justice, and behind the trial,” Doueiri said, “there’s a need for both to redeem themselves.”
The characters are portrayed as equal victims of their powerful leaders, who relegate them to being pawns in a power struggle. “The Insult” cleverly portrays the consequences of the paranoia and persecution that permeate their lives — coping with abuse by wrapping themselves in the racist narratives of tribal leaders and feasting on their fear of one another’s groups.
More than whether the characters are equals in the film is the poignant way the director indulges himself in using Hollywood stunts to make the film more international — from the courtroom drama to the helicopter shots or even casting the stunning Rita Hayek as lead actress.
Hayek may just as well have been cast for her own experiences, including having grown up in East Beirut. “I lived with the pain that my own parents were struggling with after the war,” she said. “Going over to the other side of the war with the Muslims, I can now see the trauma of what my parents went through.”
Yet is “The Insult” closing the gap or widening it? The portrayal of the Christian militia leader Samir Geagea is an indulgence that vexes some in Lebanon.
What is “The Insult” really attempting to do with this plot, which starts with two men needing an apology from one another and morphs into a national courtroom drama that uproots their war-time consciousness?
Seeking justice is the tenet of this tragic story but there are subplots that can be easily missed — the broken love between a failed lawyer and his daughter; the jaw-dropping level of corruption that has left the Lebanese with a rubbish dump of a country; politicians extracting what they can to pay for their playboy lifestyles; the laziness and despondency with which police officers do their job; and the pervasive hatred, fear and racism that the country has seen develop following the civil war.
Journalist Jim Quilty said the “re-branding” of Geagea left him uneasy and that he was sceptical about “reconciliation.”
“When’s the last time a film kickstarted political reconciliation? Seems to me this film has more to do with normalising the profile of a civil war militia leader than it does national reconciliation,” he said.
It’s fair criticism. Not only of Geagea but also of Bashir Gemayel — the Christian president elected during the Israeli occupation of 1982 — who seems to have been canonised. Doueiri, however, rejected that view.
“The story isn’t about Geagea or Bashir Gemayel,” the director said. “I believe Geagea is a changed man. He redeemed himself in many ways others didn’t but he keeps getting a bad rap because it allows the accusers to conceal their own mistakes.
“No film achieves its objectives. Maybe ‘Midnight Express’ (the 1978 thriller about conditions within the Turkish prison system) did at the time but, in general, art work plays a role but remains small but significant.
“You don’t achieve reconciliation from one end. It takes a lot more than a film but I know the debate ensued and some taboos are starting to break. That’s a good sign for me.”
“The Insult” is a well-made film but not one that can be compared to works such as “West Beirut” (1998) due to the Hollywood nuance. However, it remains worth watching with a critical eye.