Ziad Doueiri, whose Hollywood credentials include being a cameraman for most of Quentin Tarantino's earlier films (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown), has made several films in his native Lebanon (West Beirut, The Attack, Lila Says). With his new film The Insult opening stateside, I had a chance to talk with him. We didn't only talk about his terrific new film, but also the chaotic world we live in and his love of Train to Busan.
The Insult opens New York and Los Angeles on 1/12. National roll out would follow. Please visit Cohen Media website for more info.
Screen Anarchy: I had to do a little bit of research on Lebanese history before and after seeing THE INSULT. I find that Lebanon has an incredibly complex history with a very diverse society in religion, ethnicity, the whole make up of the society. Was it then a conscious decision for you to concentrate on the two individuals, despite the whole geopolitical dynamics – the US, Israelis, Iranians and other big political players surrounding Lebanon?
Ziad Doueiri: Of course. When you do a film you have to think of your main characters. And you have to build those characters in a way you get attached to them. Now you can build it on a local platform or international platform and you can add whatever conflict you want- it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s the story of those two people.
Now, the Middle East is a very complex place. It is so misunderstood by the world and the Middle Easterns themselves: when you sit down for dinners or parties and you talk with people from Lebanon, for instance, you don’t even have two people agree with each other – there are so many different opinions and everybody gets very passionate about it because it’s such a mix of place. It makes rich? Yeah. It makes profound? Yeah. Also it makes a very volatile place too. The proof? Look what’s going on in the Arab world now. It’s fucked.
So, whenever you have all these things and you make a movie, you have to make it clear to an audience – I’m not making a film for people who are only in Lebanon. I’m making a film for audiences in general. Whether it’s a Lebanese or American film, you have to make a complex film told in a simple way. The best way to tell the complex subject treated in the simple way. The best way to extract the complexities is by telling your story in a simplest form. That’s what I believe. All my films are very simple. They go in deep contextually but the way it’s told, through dialog, through storyline, I believe it must be simple. Because the simplicity it will make the audience understand the spirit of the film better than when it's layered. When you make everything complex – dialog, plot, you might get lost. You should not lose the thread of the story.
Now, from time to time, you can talk about things that you don’t understand as a western audience. For example, when I talked about Bashir Gemayel, most westerners don’t know who he is. Bashir Gemayel is one of the most prominent figure in Lebanese history. He was the founder of the Christian Militia and he became president and he was assassinated in 1982. OK? He is a cult figure in Lebanon. He is also a very controversial figure because half of the people love him and half of the people hate him. When you make a film and talk about Bashir Gemayel, the Lebanese audience can totally understand all the nuances and details, but all the others will probably not.
But they will all understand the characters you create. They will understand a character who belongs to the party of this guy. Now you don’t know who Gemayel is but you know the character is a Christian because he belong to the group and he wears a cross. That’s what you need.
Again, you take a complex story and you tell it very simple. That’s what it is. It’s very important. Yes, the Middle East is so difficult to understand. I always try to take a simple way to explain it.
That’s what I wrote down on the margin of my note here. ‘It’s a simple portrayal of a complex society.’
Can you tell me what happened with the Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigning in Riyad, Saudi Arabia? It was all over the news.
Yes. You know, it’s very funny I get asked that question and the answer is that nobody knows.
Nobody knows, really.
I know it’s been a critical chapter, that month when he was gone for two weeks. And nobody knows exactly what happened. I don’t know.
Is the film based on real life or anything?
Not really. But I’m sure you read an interview or two I gave somewhere. The drainpipe and the water dripping (which started the whole incident) that is based on what happened to me before I wrote the story. That’s what made me think writing the story. That little silly thing got me started. Then I thought, what if we have that story in Beirut, where such a silly, such insignificant incident with absolutely no relevance becomes more complicated? This guy is expecting some kind of apology and the other guy doesn’t give it to him. And then it gets complicated. It goes from the boss, to the judge, to the supreme court to the presidency. Ah, now it’s interesting!
The second question I asked myself with my co-writer (and ex-wife) Joelle Touma, ‘could that happen in the Arab world?’ The answer was yes, it could definitely happen. No one who had seen the film thought, ‘no I don’t buy it.’ It’s like the Rodney King incident in the US – white policemen beating a black motorist created a riot. Remember this?
That’s credible. In America, the issues at stake are race issues. In Lebanon, they are religious issues. You can start a mini civil war based on race. It might get contained but the possibility is there. In France, you can start a war on class issues. It’s part of their heritage. Religion is part of our heritage. That’s why I put Christian and a Muslim. In the Middle East it is complex- it could be religion mixed with political affiliation.
You can’t get away from it if you live there though. Right?
It’s all connected. That’s what the movie is all about. It has all of that mixed in but it’s not too difficult to understand.
It is a human story. The best part of the film that I really liked was when—
When Tony fixes Yasser’s car?
Everybody says it! Everybody loves that scene! Joelle wrote that scene and I have to give her credit. Everybody loves it because it is a scene that reveals a lot about those two characters. It’s a turning point.
I know you’ve been working in Hollywood for a long time. What made you to go back to Lebanon to make films?
I grew up from 1 to 19 in Lebanon. These are formative years. When I was 12, the (Civil) war started. And I remember it. We grew up with it. I saw my parents in it. I saw how my life was and how I lived during it. It marks you for life. That’s it. It stays with you. If I grew up in Island those years, I would probably influenced by everything Iceland, if I grew up in America, I would be influenced by… you know what I am saying. At least for me, I’d always go back to those formative years- it doesn’t mean I will always be in Lebanon and do films in there. But it’s so ingrained in me.
And it’s not just growing up in any other country. The war started when I was 12. That’s a big event. It’s not a car accident. A war, day in and day out, you see things over and over, you see blood and injustice, incredible humanism and incredibly violent human behavior also. As a child growing up, I’m not seeing this TV or reading in a book, you live it. You leave home to go to school and there are checkpoints after checkpoints, there are cousins who got killed, family involved in killings, I mean, it’s big! All these things keep building in your head. You say why I keep going back there, because I have rich history there. I have rich background, rich past. I’ll probably do another movie in Lebanon. Or America which is my second home. I don’t know. You never know.
I’m pretty sure that Beirut has changed a lot over the years. But in the film, it seems so vibrant. Can you talk about the city?
It’s very vibrant and very chaotic. When I think of Beirut, I think of it where you are very welcomed. It’s not a cold place. It’s not a solitary, dark, pessimistic, gloomy place. Despite all its past and problems, it’s anything but. Lebanon has been through a lot of blood and a lot of vicious things. And yet when you go out, I was there last week, you go and sit with your people, they are full of life, seriously. They are very optimistic and love to have fun. It doesn’t mean that there is no dark side but there is also a bright side. Knowing that these people have gone through so much turmoil, but has not lost their passion for life really touches you.
Beirut is a very alive town. I think it could’ve been better have we not had the war. The way we have been in the 60s before the war started- very educated and sophisticated. The war chopped our heads off. You should go and visit.
I’d love to go.
You should go and see. There is such dynamism and also very eccentric. It’s a very eclectic town. You have gay and lesbian communities, all kinds of people and remind you that you are not in America, you are in the Middle East! But you still see things and you go “oh wow, we have that here?” It’s very fancy, very traditional, very western, very conservative, very religious, very secular… it just has everything.
It’s so great even though it’s such a small place.
True, in such a small place.
It’s a very timely movie. That words mean something. That insults cut deep, especially with Trump is relying on his Tweeter as his main communication, saying outrageous things on a daily basis. Did you have that in mind?
Absolutely not. I started writing the film in 2015. And we shot in in 2016, way before Trump came to power. When you say it’s timely, it’s because maybe the world is going through a crsis. It just happened that we made a movie that is on point. You do not predict historical events. You know? You are either ahead of the event or behind. Seriously, it’s a coincidence. Maybe it’s a good coincidence. We didn’t provoke it. You don’t choose those things.
It happens that the film was shown in Spain just when Catalunya was seceding. The day the film was shown, was the announcement of the secession.
Oh my god.
And it became a crisis. When I showed that film there, people came out in tears. And they were saying, “oh my god, we see Spain’s problems in your film!” Because the society was divided just like the Lebanese. And then, the film was shown two weeks ago in Kerala in India. And my actress went to present the film. And when she came back she told me. “Ziad, people went crazy there about the film because the Hindu and Muslim conflict there were reflected on it.”
So the world is going through a huge crisis and the film happens to be there.
So funny because I grew up in South Korea and the whole time I was doing a little bit of research and then watching your films, I could understand where the film was coming from. A small country surrounded by powerful countries and getting invaded left and right. I could really understand the conflict of these characters.
That’s why Korea bought the film. Korea bought The Insult to be released. Lebanese film being released in Korea? It never happened before. They bought the film last month. I was invited to Busan but I couldn’t go because I was working. I was shooting my series. I wanted to go so bad because I own about a hundred Korean films. I’m a big fan of Korean films. The Last Train to Busan was one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Have you seen it? It’s fucking great!
The zombie movie? Yes.
Did you like it?
Just great? It’s more than great! It’s a masterpiece! Joelle who knows that I love Korean films, said, “Go see that movie and take a box of Kleenex with you” I swear. I said, "But it’s a zombie movie," "Just trust me and go". I just fucking broke down and cried in the theater. Things change when you have a kid. I have a daughter. I cried so much! I saw that movie four times! Fucking Korean cinema, excellent!
I didn’t know the history of the Damour massacre. I learned it from your film. But that was the direct retaliation of the massacre before in Beirut where Muslims were killed.
What you are saying is very controversial in Lebanon. A lot of people are saying, "Oh it’s not fair that you are talking about Damour but you are not talking about other massacres that happened before and after". I want to tell you something: If I want to talk about massacres, I will end up with ten hour movie.
Massacres in Middle East are plenty. I can go on all the way back to Jesus Christ. There were nothing but massacres. Yet they are somehow linked- they are all linked! So the story I had to ask myself was ‘what story am I telling?’ The story of Tony Hanna. That’s it. It’s not a story of Safra massacre, Sabra Shatila massacre nor Mountain war massacre. It’s about him. He had to flee from home at age of 6. He saw some things and he has to live with it. That’s the story. So that consequently upset a lot of people. Even couple of days ago, we had a screening in Los Angeles some Palestinian guy went through the roof, screaming, “Why are you talking about this but you didn’t talk about Sabra Shatila?” I said, “Guys, it’s not about Sabra Shatila. The film is about this guy.” But as you see in the Middle East, people are still very attached to their history and we are still at a boiling point. We are still very passionate and everyone wants to tell their stories.
As the character says, “Nobody has monopoly on suffering”
Exactly, that that applies to everyone, not just Palestinians. It applies to Native Americans, it applies to Jews, it applies to Koreans, it applies to…
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com