Ziad Douairi’s Oscar-Nominated Film “The Insult” Makes History: Freedom of Expression versus Obscurantism

Nélida Nassar   01.28.2018

Lebanese cinema makes and enters history today, the history of Hollywood. Since 1978, the Lebanese Government has sporadically submitted films to the Academy of Motion Pictures but none has ever received a nomination. This year, however, Ziad Douairi’s film The Insult is among the five official selections for the 2018 Oscars in the coveted foreign movies category, along with A Fantastic Woman, Loveless, On Body and Soul, and The Square. The film, co-written with Joëlle Touma, his equally-talented spouse at the time, was supported by the Lebanese ministry of culture. Its nomination silences all the rumors and overcomes all the controversies and rough roads the director has had to deal with since Kamel el-Basha won the Volpi Cup for best actor at the Venice Festival for his role in the film. Among these problems was a judicial hearing and detention during Douiari’s last visit to Beirut in September. His passports (French and Lebanese) were confiscated, and he was required to appear at a military tribunal, which ended with no charges being pressed. The nomination comes at a time when Lebanon has been making headlines over censorship: Steven Spielberg’s The Post was banned last week and only allowed to be shown when the Prime Minister stepped in to overrule that decision.

The Insult or Kadiya 23 is the story of a confrontation, of a fight blown out of all proportion. Stemming from the past history of two individuals representing two wounded countries, it is a clash between two men bruised in their pride and in their sense of history. Toni (Adel Karam), a mechanic, is a Lebanese Christian, Yasser (Kamel el-Basha), a foreman, is Palestinian. The day Yasser insults Toni, the latter decides to sue him. The resulting trial takes on a national dimension, reviving old wounds between two countries with a painful past and bringing all the antagonistic clans onto the streets. The plot is essentially an excuse to examine a past in need of healing. Doueiri manages to achieve an artistic success with the combination that Sergueï Eisenstein has written about: “Now why should the cinema follow the forms of theater and painting rather than the methodology of language, which allows wholly new concepts of ideas to arise from the combination of two concrete denotations of two concrete objects?”

The film presents a great cast consisting of Adel Karam, Kamel el-Basha, Camille Salameh, Rita Hayek and Diamond Abou Abboud. The Ginger Beirut Productions Company and especially producers Antoun Sehnaoui (founder of Ezekiel Film Production) and Fred Domont should all be applauded for their firm belief in this project, supporting it through all the difficulties and challenges it encountered.

Douairi is delighted with the nomination and takes great pride in it, considering it a huge gift to Lebanon, as making films there, and throughout the region, is a great challenge, especially financially. There is no need to add insult to injury by boycotting and censuring movies made locally. Since the film was submitted late, he didn’t believe it would be selected. The nomination also brings a sense of gratification; for the movie has been fought over in the press by certain political factions in Lebanon before and after its release.

Curiously, Douairi was granted unprecedented permission to film at the courthouse, as well as the help of the national security services and the army. All the same, he was not judged on his artistic merits but rather on his political opinions or, more precisely, on the absence of explicit political positions in the film’s story line. Facing accusations of being a collaborator with Israel – his previous picture, The Attack, was partially filmed across the border – it seemed that the censorship board wished to find a way to chastise him. As we all know, once censorship gets out of hand, it has the potential to do a lot of damage. This is one of the most basic challenges the movie has had to face. Having it selected as Lebanon’s Oscar entry is thus all the more satisfying. After all, we don’t have to agree with one another in all our opinions in order to see the undoubted merits of the film. In this case freedom of expression has triumphed over obscurantism and is itself the biggest winner here. Still, we must bear in mind that freedom of expression and freedom of speech aren’t really effective unless the expression and speech can be heard. The freedom to hear is as important as the freedom to speak, which is the lesson the film attempts to communicate. 

Since its opening in Lebanon, the picture has been a great success, attracting droves of young and old Lebanese alike. It particularly resonates with those who did not participate in the war. Douairi’s subject is urgent and universal. It deals with tolerance and reconciliation: attitudes and approaches which are so desperately needed nowadays in Lebanon, the Middle East and, indeed, worldwide. The film is opening both in Italy and the USA, and the Lebanese should savor its nomination and success and hope for its victory at the Oscars. Cinema, like any art form, has the ability to encourage people to think, to question and to debate difficult issues. We may venture to say that The Insult has entered the realm of great art in the sense that through its bold willingness to pose difficult questions it meets the criterion implicitly proposed by David Lynch: “Every viewer is going to get a different thing. That’s the thing about painting, photography, cinema”.