Nearly 20 years had passed since Ziad Doueiri last shot a film in his native Lebanon – in fact, his first as a director (“West Beirut”) after honing his craft in the States by working as a first assistant cameraman during the ‘90s for the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Joe Dante. There were no guarantees he would ever be coming back for professional reasons, particularly after filming his searing 2014 drama “The Attack” in Israel, which is a forbidden destination for the Lebanese. (The country prevented “Wonder Woman” from being shown within its borders because of its Israeli star Gal Gadot.) But Doueiri knew of no other location to set his latest film “The Insult” than Beirut, a city where the mix of cultural contradictions can been seen from the streets.
“Beirut is so visual because it is so inconsistent in terms of architecture,” says Doueiri. “It’s one of the most chaotic towns I’ve seen. It’s really not considered a pretty town, yet visually, it’s stunning. There’s no plan for the city. There’s no code. You can build any way you want. But because of the scale, when you go up from the air and you see all these towers, it’s like Hong Kong and you lower your camera, it looks like a different city. It’s very sunny and close to the beach.”
The skyline puts the underlying tension of “The Insult” into sharp relief even before Doueiri reveals the film’s central conflict, pitting a mechanic named Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) against Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha), a construction foreman attempting to fix a pipe extruding from Hanna’s building. Hanna’s objection isn’t to the issue of the pipe, but his awareness that Salameh is a Palestinian refugee, the kind Hanna believes has been given special treatment since the formation of Israel pushed many across its border into Lebanon in 1948, and after words — and eventually, a punch — are exchanged, the two head for court in a civil case that catches the attention of the entire nation. The arguments, like the buildings they take place in, have deep historical foundations, yet every word of them comes brimming with the electric charge that they could change the future. Naturally, the trial grows larger than either of the two men involved, becoming a flashpoint for a hard-charging celebrity attorney Wajdy Webb (Camille Salameh) who sees defending Hanna as an opportunity to further the country’s Christian cause, while a progressive young lawyer (Diamond About About) takes Salameh’s case to outline a history of Palestinians being treated as second-class citizens in the region.
For as much time as “The Insult” spends in a courtroom, the thriller never feels as if it’s at a standstill, visually dynamic in how Doueiri’s camera is attuned so keenly to the emotions of the characters he follows, yet equally vibrant in how he and his longtime writing partner Joelle Touma author a dizzying drama in which the evolution of personal ideas about what is just become even more riveting than what the court ultimately finds. As Doueiri recently confided to me, his own ideas about the film he made are still evolving as well, though he’s obviously quite proud of “The Insult,” which was recently shortlisted for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award after becoming Lebanon’s official selection for Oscar consideration. During a recent conversation in Los Angeles, he spoke about how his own personal experience shaped the trial that unfolds in “The Insult,” as well as how he and Touma interrogated their own beliefs to create such lively courtroom scenes and why he now trusts his instincts more than preparation to get such energy in his work.
After you gained experience making films in the U.S., was it always the plan to make films in the Middle East once you became a director?
It’s funny because you can never really put your finger on it – where does it start, where do you want to go, what’s next? These are questions that you can’t predict, but in 1998, I was almost finished with “Jackie Brown,” and I just had a story that’s been turning in my head for quite a while. I finally put it on paper and it was a recall of my memories growing up in Beirut. I did not know where it was going to go. I didn’t know who was going to finance it or how it was going to be made, but I went for it. And I ended up shooting it in Beirut, but you never know.
The writing process is so sometimes organic. You can’t analyze it. If you analyze it, the analysis tends to be a lot bigger than the work itself, so I just follow my instinct in the way I work and then later, I start asking myself what was going on in your subconscious that made you write the story? And I am in the process right now to figure out what was going on in my head when I was writing “The Insult” and I’m slowly coming up with some answers.
You’ve said the inciting incident – a dispute over watering some plants – was inspired by an experience you had, but there was no trial in real life. Did the rest of this story come naturally?
It’s true. It came because of an incident, but the story has been building since I was a child. The incident broke the dam. Growing up in Beirut, you are not growing up in Los Angeles. You’re growing up in a war zone and you get exposed to a lot of things that normally a regular, average citizen does not get exposed to. You see things. You don’t read about them. You don’t hear about them on CNN or in class or by your neighbor. You are going through them. I have been stopped at checkpoints. My dad has been beaten. I grew up in an environment where your rights are always trampled upon. In the Middle East, you don’t have rights. You’re always being violated. And I’m not saying this from an intellectual point – fuck no. I’m telling you this from a very visceral point of view.
I’m trying to remember where did it all start? Why “The Insult” start? It was triggered a few years ago by that incident where I was watering my plants, but this is just the triggering point. There’s a lot behind it, and I’m going through a very pleasant trip trying to put my finger on it — and why I hold onto fairness so much. For me, this movie is about being fair — Tony Hanna wants things to be fair. He wants justice. [And] there’s always something in your past that made you who you are. I’m not talking from an idealistic point of view at all. I’m talking from a pure personal point of view. When I get stopped at a checkpoint and I did not have a driver’s license and I got beaten up by the Syrians, that’s unfair. When my dad crossed from West to East Beirut back in the ‘70s, and on the way back, he went to East Beirut to buy some petrol for our gaslamp and food and he gets stopped by a checkpoint and they dump everything, I was with him in the car – that was unfair. Now, I’m thinking 40 years later, these things happened a very long time ago, but it registered.
I was a bassist when I was 16, 17, and I start saving money over and over to buy a bass guitar and a bass amp. Finally, I got about $800 to buy a whole unit and six months down the line – a militia comes in under the garage and they just take all my equipment away. I did not have the means to stop them. They were armed. That was unfair. This is such a silly incident, but this is where people make their lives. You become who you are based on something that you live day by day. This is how we get formed as a human being – you, me, every person. I’ve lived in a world that is not fair in Lebanon, because we’ve been occupied by the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Israelis and by the Lebanese, then by the right-wing militia, then by the left-wing militia — we’ve gotten exposed to a lot of unfair [treatment] and if you put it all together, “The Insult” was bound to come out. It’s about somebody asking for justice and he goes about it in the legal way because he believes that his rights were taken away when he was [much younger].
Life has not been easy, but it’s been extremely rich. I cannot neither also deny my life in the U.S. [where] I lived half of my life. That played an incredible role into how I see things. I hate injustice. I make a lot of fuckups in my life. I really do. I’m not very moral on certain things, but justice I’m very adamant about it. Plus, my mom is a lawyer, and I think [seeing her as] such a fighting lawyer always, becoming very fanatic about what she wanted, it left a trace.
To that end, I’ve heard you and your co-writer Joelle Touma actually put yourselves into the shoes of the side that was opposite the way you were raised in order to understand the other’s point of view. How did that writing process work?
That’s right. Joelle comes from a village up in the mountains where the right wing militia was born. Bachir Gemayel, the founder of the right wing militia [whose speech you can hear in the film], is a friend of her mom. I grew up in the left part of Beirut that is so at war with those people and I come from a very left-wing, secular pro-Palestinian family. That was back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s and then things evolved. We got to know each other, we got married — you know, sometimes you are very attracted to your opposite — and when we decided to write [“The Insult”], and this is our third film together, she said, “How about if I write the lawyer of the Palestinian?” And I said, “You know what? I do want to write the lawyer of the Christian — Wadjy Webb — because he speaks to me the most.” [So] I wrote the phrase of the guy that I hated most growing up. And Joelle and I worked out this device because at the end of the day, you’re writing a movie. You cannot let the politics take over your dramatic writing. You fuck it up. If you start writing because you have a special message to send, you fuck it up. You’ve got to write because you’ve always got to remind yourself you’re writing a character piece. That means a story has to change at the end, [so you concentrate on] what are the obstacles that [a character] goes through — your act one, act two, act three and you build a story. You can write about the most interesting political scheme in the world – if you don’t have a good screenplay, you’re going to fuck it up.
[So] we just had to make choices. We had to come back and say, “Okay, what is Tony Hanna’s story? Why is he so angry? Why? And at what point do we start revealing it?” We couldn’t start revealing it at the beginning – we had to reveal it through the court system. It was actually very easy — not easy, but very pleasant because Joelle and I knew the material so well. She said, “Let me write the scenes with the Jordanian, the guy who’s on a wheelchair,” and she really nailed it and then she said, “Let me write the scene where [Tony] fixes his car,” and we were trading scenes – I would fix her scenes and she would fix mine and we’d discuss it and then that’s it. We’d move on. We knew we had the story that we had mastered all of its elements. Every single nuance of those characters – we knew them. You write like a resume on all our characters and when I was directing this film, there was not a single detail that the actors would ask me that I didn’t know how to explain to them.
Is making a thriller set in a courtroom difficult?
[That] was the most challenging. The thing that I was asking myself constantly was if we do a courtroom drama, who is going to be interested? Is it old fashioned? And you know what? It’s not true that it’s old fashioned. There’s no formula. If it works, it works. If you want to make a World War II story, if it’s well-done – well-written, good characters, it’s going to work. But I have to admit I was a bit questioning myself [about] how many court scenes do we need to write. I went and saw “The Verdict” by Sidney Lumet. I saw “Philadelphia,” I saw “12 Angry Men,” [and] so many [others] just to see how each one of those directors who made great movies treat the subject. I found out in all their movies, it’s all about character revelation. One of the greatest movies of all time, not only in terms of a courtroom drama, is “Judgment at Nuremberg.” I’ve seen it so many times while I was writing, just to see how they flesh out those characters. The Burt Lancaster character is fucking great, the Nazi judge. The whole film is so nuanced. There’s no good and bad. I had to study how did they do it and it’s very important in courtroom dramas not to repeat yourself. Every time you enter the court in my film, you have to introduce something new, otherwise it’s going to be repetitive, so we were very, very diligent about progressing the story and the drama every time.
The dynamic camerawork would seem to add to that feeling – while the scenes are highly choreographed I imagine, do you give yourself the leeway to push in or retreat with the camera, connected to the character? Is that intuitive based on what the actor is giving you?
It is. I did not storyboard this film. I trusted the process. I came in very prepared in terms of what I wanted to tell of the story and I trusted myself on camera because I’ve been doing it a long time. Your instinct now is at a stage where you can just trust it without so much preparation. I would come on the set and let the drama take over, like you build the track and then you put the train and then you push the button. I’m not going to control everything so much. On a courtroom drama, I knew what I wanted, but I would let [the actors] rehearse – I would say, “How about you move from here and here?” and then [ask] “How does it feel? Do you feel like you want to go [over there] or do you want to go to the window?” And we would discuss it and then while they were [trying things out], I would let them have total freedom and I would adjust the camera to their move. I did not want to cut a lot. I wanted to stay with the actors, so you start building [those shots] on the set.
But I did not [have] one single page of notes in terms of shots. I really just trusted it. You experiment in film, but the more you experiment, the more you gain the experience of trusting your instinct and I trust my instinct now more than before and probably on the next film even more. [On “The Insult”] we wanted to do nine court scenes – none of them done the same way. One was very static, one was handheld, one from the actor’s point of view, one very fluid, one from the judge’s point of view, one from the lawyer’s point of view – I tried to change it every time because there’s a lot of dialogue — 40 pages — in court, so [the question became] how do you make it entertaining and significant at the same time? But I’m very happy with the product because I look at it, and say, “Wow, I’m glad on such a tiny budget, we managed to make it work.”