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Film review: 'The Insult' - A large story told on a small scale

The Insult

The director and co-writer of The Insult, Ziad Doueiri, is a relative newcomer to directing, having spent years on the technical side of filmmaking, including camera work on several Quentin Tarantino films. The movies he has directed and written in the past (West Beirut, The Attack) portray the difficult and complicated situation of his home country, Lebanon. The Insult is probably his greatest success so far, having received critical praise and award nominations from film academies and festivals around the world. Its simple and straightforward story delivers a message that is at once subtle and powerful, and which manages to transcend the political realities that make up the plot.

The story begins with a very ordinary interaction in the streets of Beirut. Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian construction worker, is doing repairs on apartment buildings when he is suddenly showered with dirty water from a defective drainpipe, coming from the balcony of the second-floor apartment belonging to mechanic Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) and his wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek). Yasser ignores the apparently deliberate act, but when he repairs the drainpipe as instructed by his foreman, Tony Hanna emerges and angrily smashes the work. Yasser calls Tony an insulting name, and from there, the dispute between the two men continues to escalate. When their feud advances from harsh words to violence, the two men end up in court, where the case is closely followed by the public, and comes to represent the ongoing conflict between Christian and Palestinian factions in Lebanon.

Doueiri sustains the tension throughout this dispute and the ensuing trial, bringing home to the viewer the significance of every stage in the process, and the oppressive symbolic importance of every word and gesture. What makes the film even more engrossing is the gradual revelation of the personal lives of the two enemies who, at first appearance, are unknown apart from the significant fact of being Christian and Muslim respectively, offering hints of the reasons behind their animosity, and particularly of Tony’s intense hatred for Palestinians, only providing the full story as the trial concludes. Tony is a fervent supporter of a pro-Christian political party, but is surprisingly mild in his private life; he and his wife expect a child soon, and this fact seems to spur on his anger toward his Palestinian neighbours.

Yasser and his wife are seen to be severely threatened by the court case; his job is threatened due to the precarious nature of Palestinian residents in Lebanon. These issues are dealt with on a purely personal level; larger issues are not mentioned until the final scenes, only their effects on the day to day lives of the main characters.  Doueiri takes the view that most apparently political hatred ultimately comes from personal pain, and will be healed primarily at the personal level – in this film, represented by small breakthroughs, as when Tony grudgingly helps Yasser start his stalled car. The car scene was one the director hesitated to include, finding it a little “gimmicky,” but which turned out to be a favourite with early viewers, who liked the humour of mechanic Tony’s professional impulses temporarily overcoming his anger.

Director Ziad Doueiri has explained that he deliberately made Lebanese Christian Tony Hanna the main protagonist, in an attempt to ensure that his own Muslim background would not bias the storyline. His own views on Lebanese politics come out indirectly in the telling of the story. The hard-liners are the older characters, such as Tony, and his lawyer, a man in his sixties. Tony’s much younger wife urges him to be more accepting and tries to understand the Palestinian viewpoint; so does Yasser’s lawyer, a young woman who happens to be the daughter of Tony’s lawyer, and whose father-daughter differences in world view come out during the trial, sometimes between the lines but clearly enough. Doueiri uses the opposition between old and young to express his hope that Lebanon will become less divided under the next generation.

The acting and cinematography are done in a naturalistic manner, even during the scenes of high drama and contrived legal battle, giving the entire story a realistic, down to earth feel. The two lead actors are particularly true to life, sometimes coming across as the only real people in a documentary surrounded by actors playing a part, forcing the viewer to identify with them. This illusion of theatre overlaying reality is enhanced by the use of real-life news footage during the climactic courtroom scenes. Doueiri has succeeded brilliantly in making Lebanon’s painful story real and accessible to the world.

Although never released in UK cinemas, The Insult is now available digitally and on DVD.

For further viewing…

The Attack, Ziad Doueiri’s 2012 drama, also deals with warring factions in the Middle East on a personal level, but in the form of a domestic mystery, based on the novel by Algerian writer Yamina Khadra. Surgeon Amin Jaafari (played by established television and film actor Ali Suliman) is a respected member of the medical team at a Tel Aviv hospital, with a successful career and what he believes is a happy and stable marriage to his wife of fifteen years, Siham (prolific Israeli actress Reymonde Amsallem). He feels that he is accepted by his Israeli colleagues and friends, and has left political and religious conflicts behind. His life changes when Siham is killed in a suicide bombing. When police claim Siham was the perpetrator of the bombing, Amin makes it his mission to discover the truth.

Where Do We Go Now? (2011) Beirut-based director Nadine Labaki addresses Lebanese conflicts in a quirky comedy/melodrama. When a formerly peaceful village falls victim to escalating Christian/Muslim conflicts, the women attempt to solve the problem, at first with a series of rather silly and elaborate tricks, and finally with an effective intervention involving a group act of personal sacrifice. The film involves some interesting choices, including musical interludes, and a beautifully surreal opening scene in which the village women, Muslim and Christian, walk together to the graveyard where recent victims of violence are buried, and fall into a spontaneous, synchronised dance of mourning before parting to their respective burial sites.