Situated just above Israel and bordering now war torn Syria, Lebanon's history is just as complicated and tumultuous as any other neighboring countries in the Middle East. With its diverse religious, cultural and political makeup, Lebanese society came to a head in the long civil war (1975 - 90) and semi-permanent Palestinian refugee camps within Beirut and other cities that have been creating lots of tension between the majority Maronite Christians and growing Muslim population. Ziad Doueiri's new film The Insult, takes the subject head on, in a story of a dispute between two men, one Christian and one Palestinian Muslim, and projects it on a national level by unfolding it as a riveting courtroom drama.
Tony (Adel Karam) is a hard working car shop owner with beautiful wife Shirine (Rita Hayek), who is expecting a baby. They live in a rapidly changing, busy Beirut neighborhood. Their apartment and his shop are always inundated with hardline Lebanese right-wing Christian political propaganda - that Palestine Muslims are always inciting violence, draining valuable resources, that they are scourge of the country, etc., on TV and the radio. Yasser (Kamel El Basha) is a foreman of a construction project overseeing a high-rise building being built in the neighborhood. He is a Palestinian who's long been living in a refugee camp with a Lebanese wife.
Their lives intersect when wastewater from a drainpipe of Tony's apartment balcony drenches Yasser below. Tony curtly rejects Yasser's polite offer (the construction firm he works for is big on community outreach) to fix the pipe and have it up to city code. When Yasser's men fix the pipe without Tony's consent, Tony breaks the pipe with a hammer, resulting in Yasser calling him names.
Tony complains to the construction company and wants an apology from Yasser. But when Yasser shows up at his garage with his boss to apologize, Tony enrages Yasser by saying "(Ariel) Sharon was right, you Palestinians need to be wiped out from the face of the earth!" Instead of apologizing, Yasser ends up punching Tony in the chest, sending him to the hospital with two broken ribs. They go to court, but the judge sides with Yasser and dismisses the case. Tony seeks out a high-profile, hotshot lawyer Wajdi (Camille Salameh) who has history defending National Christian political figures in the past, to have his case be tried in high courts.
Their trial become a national sensation. In the polarized political climate, their case become a flashpoint for daily violence on the street. In the courtroom, their private lives are scrutinized and outside, their lives are being threatened with violence.
Even though The Insult is one of those politically charged film, it never loses the sight of characters. Tony and Yasser's stories stay personal and never fall into the stereotypes who get easily swayed by their surroundings. Unlike other films of this nature, they are not rewarded by their ideology or identity. They don't get supported by other entities other than themselves. Doueiri never wavers from reminding us that Tony and Yasser are ordinary working people living in a country with a very complex history where one can't separate their politics or identity from their ordinary lives.
Perhaps the best scene in the whole film is right after their meeting with a high court judge, who suggests Tony drop the assault charges to avoid the ensuing the media frenzy of a trial. At the court house parking lot, they go their separate ways. But Yasser's old car wouldn't start. Tony, already driving away, looks in on his rearview mirror, comes back to fix Yesser's car. Doueiri hits home with the fact that they are decent, working class people despite their prejudices and bigotry.
Being the smallest country in the region and ethnically diverse, Lebanon has been long mired in geo-political power games by powerful neighboring countries (along with the US). The film also puts a spotlight on lesser known facts like the PLO led massacre in Damour, a seaside town where many Christians were killed. It was a retaliation of a massacre of the Muslims in Beirut that happened just before. 'No one has a monopoly on suffering and pain' is the main take away in the film.
The Insult is a timely film in the world of extreme political polarization and where political correctness is viewed as a bad thing, and that every word that we utter still matters, that there are consequences to what we say.
The Insult opens Friday 1/12 in New York and Los Angeles. Roll out to other cities will follow.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com