Lebanese movie The Insult is a great film. (File photo)
One of the most controversial films at El Gouna Film Festival, the Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult nonetheless received El Gouna’s Silver Star and the Volpi Cup Award; it had been nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice after an international premiere at Toronto.
Doueiri, born in 1963, is best-known for his award-winning West Beirut (1998), which won numerous prizes including the François Chalais Award at Cannes, the Best First Film Award at Carthage and the FIPRESCI Award at Toronto. Having left Lebanon at the age of 18 to study in the US, where he became known as Quentin Tarantino’s camera assistant on Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and Jackie Brown (1997), Doueiri is now based in France. His last film, The Attack (2012), was partly filmed in Tel Aviv, something that brought him under in the Arab world — though it won the Golden Star at the Marrakech Film Festival and the Cineuropa Award at the Istanbul Film Festival.
With a disclaimer declaring that it does not reflect any official views or policies of Lebanon, The Insult delves into recent and ongoing Lebanese history through an incident involving two neighbours: a Palestinian construction worker named Yasser (Kamel Al-Basha) and a local car mechanic and repairs garage owner, Toni (Adel Karam). Toni lives with his wife Sherine (Rita Hayek) and they are expecting a baby girl, while Yasser — being a refugee — is technically an illegal resident. The story begins when Yasser approaches Toni regarding Toni’s leaking drainpipe, and Toni promptly slams the door in his face. When Yasser fixes it himself to prevent the leaking, Toni makes a point of smashing it. A verbal fight follows, Yasser insults Toni and refuses to apologise.
While working at his garage Toni listens to speeches by Bachir Gemayel, the anti-Palestinian Phalange leader assassinated in 1982. Yasser’s boss, on the other hand, persuades him to supply the required apology to avoid trouble. While trying to do so, Yasser reflexively punches Toni and breaks his ribs when Toni says he wished Sharon had wiped them all out. Toni takes the issue to court, turning it into a national issue of urgent public import, with lawyers volunteering to defend one or the other of the two men. In its second half the film becomes a courtroom drama: Toni is represented by an elderly lawyer named Wajdi (Camille Salameh), and Yasser by an enthusiastic young woman lawyer named Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud); while they make their theatrical defences it turns out they are father and daughter, an unnecessary cliched nod to the younger generation.
As the courtroom drama progresses with Wajdi being callous and Nadine emotional, the viewer is drawn deeper into Lebanese politics and the Civil War, scenes of which begin to intrude on the court scenes. By the third sequence, the story has gone past the two men. Both are now racked by guilt, feeling that their story has gone too far, reopening old wounds and enabling the lawyers to further their own careers at the expense of people’s pain.
Though too long, the film benefits from a coherent script by Doueiri with Jouelle Touma as well as excellent cinematography by Tommaso Fiorilli. While the trial progresses, a tension similar to that of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957), starring and co-produced by Henry Fonda — in which a jury of 12 debates the fate of a young man charged with murdering his father — begins to make itself felt. Here too the claustrophobia is compelling, and a simple, classic premise develops into the story of a nation, much as an argument between a father and his daughter in a confined space reflects an entire civil war.
With a whole family of lawyers, Doueiri says if he hadn’t been a filmmaker he would’ve been a lawyer — a feeling he indulged to the utmost in this film, making his mother the film’s legal advisor too. Doueiri wants to take a break from filmmaking, he said at El Gouna, though he wants his next film to be so apolitical, as he put it, it will be about a man on Venus and another on Mars.
Reviewed by Soha Hesham
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