In “The Insult,” an everyday dispute in Beirut between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee over a leaky gutter engulfs a nation still struggling with scars of Lebanon’s brutal 1975-1990 civil war.
The searing film, which opens locally on Feb. 2 at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis, was nominated for an Academy Award on Tuesday for Best Foreign Language Film. But regardless of the outcome on Oscar night, “I believe I won the day the film was released in Lebanon,” said director Ziad Doueiri, speaking via cellphone from a busy Parisian street.
Doueiri talked not just about his film’s release, but his own release after being detained when he flew back to Beirut to debut “The Insult” in September. His alleged offense was treason for shooting portions of his previous film, “The Attack,” in Israel.
Doueiri said many factions in Lebanon’s fractured society were complicit, but he specifically blames those behind the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement that seeks to ban even innocuous content such as “Wonder Woman” because it starred Israeli Gal Gadot.
“The complexity of this issue comes because the government of Lebanon is a divided government,” Doueiri explained. “There is a part of the government that supports ‘The Insult’ and part of the government that completely fought ‘The Insult.’ There is a part of the government that arrested me and part of the government that released me.”
Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the leader of the part of the government releasing the film and the director, found himself detained recently in Saudi Arabia after his royal allies turned on him and forced him to read a resignation letter. It was a gambit in the broader regional rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran, with the real target being Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite organization that is Lebanon’s most powerful entity.
Hezbollah looks to solidify its grip in May elections, said Hanin Ghaddar, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was sentenced in absentia last week for 2014 comments allegedly defaming Lebanon’s armed forces. The verdict, which was strongly condemned by media freedom groups, reflects rising repression in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s backer Iran, Ghaddar said, “won Iraq, they won Syria, they won Lebanon, they are trying to make sure everyone understands that.”
“The Insult” reflects political complexities, too, but with more of an emphasis on the plight of Palestinian refugees, who are not met with monolithic sympathy in Lebanon. Especially by the hotheaded character Tony, whose rage has roots in how his Christian community fared in the war. Similarly, Yasser’s toxic anger reflects his Palestinian experience. When their spat spirals into a court case and media sensation that rivets a riven nation, Lebanon seems on the verge of war again.
Another civil war is not on the horizon, however, said Ghaddar, “simply because Hezbollah will beat anyone in a day. ... But what I see is actually a collapse of the state, a collapse of institutions; the economy of Lebanon is really, really bad.”
And it may worsen with the Trump administration’s announcement last week that it was withholding $65 million out of a scheduled $120 million from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which aids the Palestinian diaspora across multiple Mideast refugee camps. Lebanon also shelters more than 1 million Syrians.
Despite such a fraught fracturing of his country, Doueiri said, “I made the film because I believe that there is hope, actually. ... I’m optimistic in life, and I believe mainly I want to tell the American audience that we are not that far from each other. There are some similarities between any people; it is about the search for dignity, whether you are American or Vietnamese or Sri Lankan or you’re Muslim or Christian or Jewish, it’s important to tell the truth, it’s important to maintain justice.”
Doueiri’s perspective comes from his formative civil war years and from living in another polyglot: America, where he fled and went to film school. He even writes his films in English — well, actually, “American,” as he says, an “earthy language” that is “much more true to cinema” — before he translates them back into Arabic.
The Oscar nod for “The Insult” is a compliment to a people long besieged by bad news.
“Everyone is very excited about it. … Of course, the pro-Hezbollah people are very upset. … They hate everyone who they couldn’t silence,” Ghaddar said. “It’s not just about the movie being nominated, it’s really about a small victory for Lebanon that is very, very much needed now more than ever.”
His competition is “so beautiful, so fantastic, so legitimate,” Doueiri said. But should he win, “we will be able to tell the world, ‘Look, we can do good stuff, too.’ It’s a source of pride; it’s like winning a medal at the Olympics.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.