By Andrea Gronvall

The Gronvall Report: Ziad Doueiri on THE INSULT

After acclaim at Venice where Palestinian star Kamel El Basha won the Volpi Cup Award for Best Actor in The Insult, French-Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri’s film headed to Telluride and Toronto, but when Doueiri, who lives in Paris, headed back to Lebanon in September for the commercial premiere, he was detained at the Beirut airport and sent the next day to a military court to face charges of treason for shooting The Attack five years ago in Israel. Though Doueiri was released without charge, he believes agitators from the anti-Israel BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] movement were behind the incident. In October, BDS publicly pressured the Days of Cinema festival in Ramallah to drop The Insult from its closing night slot, on the grounds that the film promotes a “normalizing” approach to Israel.

The Insult hardly “normalizes” anyone or anything. Instead, it is a taut, fast-paced drama about a highly irregular court case where Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a Beirut Christian car mechanic, sues a Palestinian illegal worker, construction engineer Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), over not apologizing for a verbal insult that Tony himself provoked. Yasser’s Lebanese foreman intervenes to smooth tensions, but neither Tony nor Yasser will budge, and (without giving away surprise twists) events escalate to a bewildering fever pitch, landing the men in court and inciting media frenzy.

Doueiri co-wrote the original screenplay with Joelle Touma, his writing partner on his last two films, and, until recently, his wife; they underwent divorce proceedings during the filming of The Insult. Joelle comes from a Lebanese Christian background while Doueiri is a secular Muslim, so their personal histories inform conflicts in the story. I spoke with Doueiri while he was in Los Angeles to promote the film, which landed on this year’s shortlist of nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Doueiri is no stranger to the city, with his first big break in the industry in the early 1990s coming as an assistant camera operator for Quentin Tarantino on Reservoir Dogs, and who, like Tarantino, seems to have seen every Hollywood movie ever made.

How did you find your leading men, who were, I confess, previously unknown to me? I was surprised to learn that Adel Karam is a comedian; you cast him against type. And that Kamel El Basha is from the theatre, and that this is his first major film role. The camera loves him. He reminds me a little of Henry Fonda; he has the range to go from stoic, to vulnerable, to noble, to furious. Did you cast these guys together? I cast them separately. Beforehand I was not aware of these actors, either, even though Adel Karam is a very popular television comedian with a talk show. In Lebanon, he’s like Jay Leno. When the casting director told me Adel does comedy, I was curious because comic actors often have a gift for drama. Before casting Kamel El Basha I interviewed him via Skype, and felt I could work with him. On the set I did have to talk him through things, and tone down his theatricality. That scene where he’s screaming in the construction trailer we shot when he was really angry at me because I had already made him do several retakes. But he let his anger work for him and pulled it off. I was so happy for him when he won his award. It is compensation for the very hard life we choose when making movies.

Do you storyboard scenes? Do you rehearse before you shoot? I don’t storyboard unless I’m planning a very complicated sequence. I’ve been on a lot of movie sets, so I just trusted the camera, like I did when I was shooting the TV series “Baron Noir” for Canal Plus. I didn’t want the actors in The Insult to worry about their movements, so I used the Steadicam on purpose to follow them around, letting them see what it’s really like, for instance, moving around a courtroom. I only do a few rehearsals, because we’ve already discussed the scene thoroughly in advance. But they don’t improvise any dialogue; their lines were filmed to the letter.

Your film is a serious drama, but it also has elements of the absurd. Call me crazy, but in a way it resembles the Israeli film Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, in that there are two litigants, locked in utter intractability, in a court where the judges can’t believe their ears. That’s a great film.

It is, isn’t it? In both Gett and The Insult, the legal case in question shouldn’t be that difficult. Did you spend time in courtrooms to do research? My mother is a lawyer, so during writing I consulted her for accuracy about laws in Lebanon. Once you know what those are, you can see where the drama lies. So my mom took me along to court, and allowed me to assist her; in Lebanon, you don’t have to be a legal professional to assist a lawyer. But mostly I was influenced by American courtroom films, like The Verdict, a great work, and Judgment in Nuremberg, one of the best films ever made. It’s not about the law; it’s about the human dimension. I watched Philadelphia again. The genre is about revelation of character. Courtroom films take your characters and put them through the system and fuck up their lives. It’s like in that movie Michael Mann made, The Insider, in that scene where Al Pacino, Russell Crowe and his wife go to meet Christopher Plummer, who plays CBS newsman Mike Wallace, and this is the first the wife hears that her husband is going on TV and will create this big scandal and get in trouble, and she storms out of the room. So Plummer asks Pacino what’s going on, and Pacino says, “What can I tell you, Mike? These are ordinary people under extraordinary pressure.” In The Insult, the characters are under so much pressure: legal, social, family, media. Why is Tony so angry? He wants justice. Why is Yasser so resistant? He doesn’t believe he can get justice. And that’s what the point is: the whole film is about dignity.

Lebanon’s civil war was so complicated; the more I read about it, the more I have to read to understand it. But The Insult is not difficult to follow; by focusing on one small corner of the bigger picture, you’ve created a work that sheds light not only on the Lebanese and Palestinian conditions, but also has a universal appeal. Were you consciously planning that when you wrote it? My family lived through the Lebanese civil war. I grew up in chaos, and I have vivid memories of everything we went through: the checkpoints, the shelters, and daily injustices, like my brother getting stopped and slapped. Life goes on, but it all still registers. When I began writing the script, I believe my unconscious mind took over, filtering those moments we lived and witnessed long ago. But also a big influence was my life in the U.S.; I left Lebanon at 20 to move to Los Angeles. I co-wrote this screenplay with a partner, but all the scenes I wrote I originally wrote in English, then translated them for the final script. The one thing Joelle and I were emphatic about was that we wanted the story to be understandable to everyone, not just the Lebanese. Anyone—European, American—can understand it. Half my life has been spent in the U.S., so I didn’t want us to get bogged down in details that were too specific.

Where did you find Camille Salameh, the actor who plays Tony’s lawyer? He’s terrific. That speech you gave him late during the trial, where in making personal disclosures he risks all hell breaking loose, is riveting. He’s a theater professor. He was wonderful. I wrote his part with Ed Concannon, the character James Mason plays in The Verdict, in mind. Wajdy Wehbe [Salameh’s character] was my life; everything that I believe I put in his mouth. I really wrote his lines very carefully because they express my views. That speech was my response to the BDS movement, for what they did to get my last movie, The Attack, banned in 22 countries. I was so pissed! BDS tried to do that again with this film, but they were only able to get it banned in Palestine. That is very unfortunate, and so sad. And it’s not fair. Everyone everywhere should be able to see a movie. [Since I spoke with Ziad, The Insult was also banned in Jordan, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait.]

Congratulations on having the first film from Lebanon to make the shortlist for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy award. Are you feeling any pressure, or are you just enjoying the moment? When I think about it, it gives me joy. But as a filmmaker, you don’t put all your happiness eggs in one basket. My biggest happiness is that The Insult opened in Lebanon, to became #1 there at the box office, and that the government secretly submitted the film to the Motion Picture Academy for Oscar consideration. For me, this is the cherry on the cake.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon