OPINION: By Laura Al Bast
BU News Service
In a bullet-stricken and bustling Beirut, “no one has a monopoly on suffering.” This is a message transmitted throughout “The Insult,” a film that showcases the reality of deeply rooted historical differences.
Directed by Ziad Doueiri, a controversial Lebanese-French director, “The Insult” is the first Lebanese film to be nominated for an Oscar. The film is largely a courtroom drama that projects remnants of political tensions from the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Kamel El Basha’s Yasser Salameh, a Palestinian Muslim construction foreman, and Adel Karam’s Tony Hanna, a Lebanese Christian auto shop owner, enter into a minor dispute over a drainpipe that escalates into a political crisis.
In the film, Yasser is hired to fix building-code violations that include a broken pipe sticking out of Tony’s balcony. He pays the tenant a visit to explain the situation. Upon hearing Yasser’s accent, Tony, a Christian nationalist, correctly identifies him as a Palestinian. Consequently, he slams the door in his face. Yasser and his workers fix the pipe anyway, which prompts Tony to smash their handy-work. Infuriated, Yasser curses him. An angry Tony asks Yasser’s boss for an apology, and while Yasser initially refuses, his wife persuades him to reconsider. The interaction that follows is one between two prideful men and results in an unspeakable hateful insult by Tony that targets Yasser’s Palestinian identity and national history.
Despite the viscerally painful interactions shown on screen, the film explores the fundamental goodness of the two characters — and their similarities. Both are haunted by a wartime past under different circumstances. They love their families and are admired by their communities. They even share a mutual disdain for Chinese products and a trust in German materials.
The women in the film are portrayed sensibly, preoccupied with finances, the health of their husbands and the security of their homes. They stand by their husbands, acting as buffers to the men’s irrational, aggressive behavior. This is even portrayed between the lawyers, as Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), Tony’s lawyer, is feisty and out of control, taking every opportunity to politicize this neighborhood dispute. Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Bou Abboud), Wehbe’s daughter and Yasser’s defense lawyer, is seen as calm, composed and an active fighter for fair justice away from politics. She proclaims Yasser an honest man who acted in self-defense in a moment of distress, without demonizing the plaintiff.
Yet, despite the presentation of a fair defense of Yasser the film fails to present the two narratives equally. Scenes of unrest, vandalism and aggression are displayed more heavily as Palestinian actions. This prevails with Palestinians in keffiyehs (Palestinian headscarves) burning tires and spray-painting a Star of David on Tony’s garage door. Yasser is presented as violent for attacking a Jordanian soldier in his youth who is now in a wheelchair.
The film also fails to tell a clear history of the atrocities committed by the Jordanian army during Black September in 1970 and of the Christian militia in Lebanon against the Palestinians during the civil war.
The film presents various social and political issues that resonate in contemporary Lebanon, like the illegality of hiring Palestinian workers and the lack of national reconciliation following the end of the civil-war. The film was difficult to watch as a Palestinian and as someone who lived in Beirut for four years.
Scenes of a skyline crowded with buildings, the sound of the call to prayer and the loud sarcasm of Tony’s lawyer all brought forth a sad nostalgia and a surprising fulfillment that this was not a misrepresentation of Lebanon in the Middle East.
My difficulty in viewing “The Insult” did not just spring from homesickness, but also from a realization that sectarian violence is still a common occurrence. Only last month, Gebran Bassil, the Lebanese foreign minister and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement — the largest Christian political party — allegedly called Nabih Berri, the Shiite Speaker of Parliament and head of the Amal Movement, a “thug.” The incident was followed by Amal supporters shooting guns and burning tires near the Free Patriotic Movement headquarters.
I remember taking a cab ride during my first year of college in Beirut. The driver pointed to the side of the road as we crossed an area near Beirut Souks and told me, “Those dirty Palestinians used to hang all their dirty laundry right here during the war.” This statement was followed by a slew of insults targeted at the group. I was terrified to speak; having not yet learned the Lebanese dialect, my thick Palestinian accent may have been a threat to my safety.
Like my taxi experience, “The Insult” stirred emotions of awe, anger and sadness. Throughout the film, I almost felt that the anti-Palestinian lines were being spewed in my direction. However, the film also made me laugh. It pushed me to have empathy for characters like Tony and it made me cherish the humility in Yasser. The stories of neighbors are far more complex than the narratives told on screen.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of Boston University News Service.