The Insult

August 31, 2018
Tony and Yasser: encounter in the car park

Mention the Middle East and most people think of the intractable conflict between the Israelis and their Arab neighbours, but the region is riddled with lingering enmities that never make international headlines. Beirut, once the most glamorous and cosmopolitan of cities, was the epicentre of a brutal civil war from 1975-1990 which began with battles between Maronite Christians and Palestinian Muslims. As the fighting intensified the identities of the combatants and their alliances became increasingly complicated.

Beirut still bears the scars of that war, both in the fabric of the city and the minds of those who suffered through those years. In Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult all it takes is one piece of shoddy plumbing to ignite an argument between two stubborn men that escalates until it threatens a national crisis.

Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) is a Maronite who runs a small garage. His wife Shirine (Rita Hayek) is pregnant with their first child. Tony is a hot-head who attends political rallies and listens to the speeches of Bachir Gemayel, the Christian demagogue who was elected President of Lebanon in 1982, in the midst of the Civil War, only to be assassinated less than a month later.

Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is a Palestinian living as a long term refugee in Beirut, and foreman of a construction crew charged with repairing the city’s disorderly neighbourhoods. Yasser is a generation older than Tony, with a stoical personality that suggests he has seen his share of trouble.

Yasser’s crew are doing routine maintenance when they are sprayed with water from a pipe protruding from Tony’s balcony. Yasser knocks on the door to say they’ll need to fix the pipe, but gets short shrift from Tony, who can tell a Palestinian from his accent. He fixes the pipe anyway, only to watch Tony lean over and smash the new work. Yasser calls Tony something unpleasant in Arabic, which gets a fairly blunt translation in the subtitles. Tony takes offence and demands an apology from Yasser’s boss.

In an effort to defuse the affair, the boss (Talal Juri), drags a reluctant Yasser to see Tony and make his apologies. When they arrive Tony is listening to a loud, inflammatory anti-Palestinian speech by Gemayel. Yasser can’t bring himself to speak, and Tony loses his temper, saying that he wishes Ariel Sharon had wiped out all the Palestinians. Yasser lands one hard punch, cracking two ribs.

Tony takes Yasser to court for assault, but because neither man is willing to repeat what was actually said, the case is dismissed. This verdict enrages Tony, and he is soon sitting down with a wily old lawyer, Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), who is intent of exploting the ethnic divisions issues behind the trial. Yasser is represented by a young, female lawyer, Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Bou Abboud) who turns out to be Wajdi’s daughter.

And so the scene is set for a tense courtroom drama, as father and daughter track back over the traumas of the Civil War to explain what makes their clients tick – like dual time bombs – while angry mobs gather behind the antagonists.

At this point you’re probably thinking Doueiri is giving us a lesson in Lebanese politics, with each character being representative of a particular viewpoint. The director’s skill lies in how well he fleshes out the confrontation, letting us see Tony and Yasser as proud, fallible beings, not political cyphers. There are enough twists and subtleties in the plot to keep us guessing till the end.

Unlike most emerging Australian directors, who can’t change tone for a second, Doueiri includes a moment when, in the midst of the courtroom tensions, the two antagonists relate to each other in a casual, civilised manner. Touches like this shatter stereotypes and make a story ring true.

The acting in this film is from the heart. Kamel El Basha, as the brooding Yasser, is a former Palestinian activist who spent two years in an Israeli prison. It’s no struggle for him to conjure up the pain of someone forced to live and work in another land where his presence is grudgingly tolerated. In his grim expression one sees that mixture of resentment and pragmatism characteristic of the longterm exile.

Adel Karam plays Tony as a man with a short fuse who loves his wife but continually upsets her with his angry outbursts. For most of the film we see him as the villain although it’s clear he’s carrying some deep burden. By the end we know a lot more about him, and the cauldron in which his particular animus was formed.

Although The Insult delves into the dark corners of Lebanese politics it has universal relevance today. There are plenty of people like Yasser, who has been forcibly displaced from his homeland; and like Tony, who sees his birthright being threatened by refugees. It’s a drama played out all around the world, as nations struggle to cope with waves of displaced people.

In countries put under moral and economic pressure xenophobia spreads more quickly than understanding and is easily exploited by opportunistic politicians. One can imagine this film being restaged in the suburbs of Sydney or Melbourne, where Christians and Muslims try to negotiate their differences. Doueiri’s Lebanon may be a state with its own tortured history, but it’s also a state of mind.

The Insult
Directed by Ziad Doueiri
Written by Ziad Doueiri & Joelle Touma
Starring Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Rita Hayek, Camille Salameh, Diamand Bou Abboud, Talal Jurdi, Christine Choueiri
France/Cyrus/Belgium/Lebanon/USA, rated M, 112 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 1 September, 2018