Interview: Ziad Doueiri Talks the Real Life Inspiration behind ‘The Insult’

Ask Ziad Doueiri and he will tell you that he doesn’t make political films. But when you see his latest effort “The Insult” there’s no denying a politically engaged voice behind his filmmaking. Despite controversy surrounding his previous film (which even lead to his arrest), Doueiri continues to fearlessly spotlight unpleasant sociopolitical tensions in the Middle East with this gripping courtroom drama. Recently, I spoke to Doueiri to learn more about the background behind “The Insult” and its significance. In our interview, he was very candid about how his personal experiences with censorship and politics affected the film. Below is an edited version of our discussion.

Shane Slater: How did you come up with the premise for ‘The Insult’?

Ziad Douieri: The premise actually started with a silly, real incident that happened to me. I was living in Beirut and one morning, I was watering my plants when the water leaked through a broken pipe and landed on one of the workers who was cleaning the streets. We ended up having a stupid exchange of words. He yelled, I yelled back, then we insulted each other and then I told him a big insult. And I went down and apologized and said, “sorry, I didn’t mean to tell you this.”

Then a couple days later I was going back and I said, wow this is an interesting thing. What if I do a film where it starts with such a silly, insignificant incident and actually doesn’t stop. It gets more complicated all the way until it reaches the government, because the country is on the verge of a civil war.

So I start thinking about the ins and outs. Is it credible? Yes. Does it happen in the Middle East? Yes, it did happen. We are prone to this. Words are loaded in the Middle East. So I start doing checklists and slowly the idea started to grow in my head and that’s how we ended up here.

SS: How long did it take you to write the script and come up with the characters’ specific motivations and perspectives?

ZD: All in all, it was about a year. I wrote it in English with Joelle Touma. I write all my films in English, then I translate them. I’m more comfortable with the cinematic language. I always feel English is a very good cinema language. On top of that, I knew from the very start this film must be in court. This is how I saw it. Two people asking for justice, two people questioning the legality of their words. So automatically it belongs to a courtroom. Sometimes I asked myself if anybody wants to watch a courtroom drama. But I thought it didn’t matter. Just do it and see how it works.

During the writing process I was watching a lot of American movies. “The Verdict”, “Philadelphia”, “Judgment at Nuremburg”, “12 Angry Men”, so many movies. Just to see how they did those movies and how many courtroom drama scenes are there compared to those outside of the court. And there’s no formula. As long as it works dramatically and reveals character, then that’s fine.

SS: One thing I noticed was that both men were very honest about their actions and motivations throughout the trial. Why was that important to you?

ZD: Because it is about two people who have a lot of integrity, who are fair. And they have a lot of dignity. Their issue is not whether they are morally right or wrong. It’s about their perception of justice. It’s not about good vs bad, it’s about good vs good. The conflict comes from two similar characters. Both men are lower middle class, anti-bureaucratic and proud. But one believes justice has been taken away from him and the other guy doesn’t believe in justice whatsoever. So I had to draw two characters that are very similar, but are on opposite sides of the human scale. We had to bring out their similarities as much as their differences.

SS: Your films have courted controversy due to their political relevance in the past. Did that impact your filmmaking decisions for this movie?

ZD: To be honest, we never set out to do a film to create controversy or send a message to change society. I never do that. If you do that it looks contrived and artificial. I write about what I care about, which is truth and fairness. I have a special understanding of fairness because I’ve seen so many unfair things while I was growing up. I’ve lived it. So that was the motive and psychology behind the screenplay.

SS: The film won an award at Venice and is now shortlisted for the Oscar. Did you expect the film to play so well to audiences?

ZD: To tell you the truth, you don’t think about it. My worries early on was whether the film was going to be released in Lebanon or not. That was something I was very concerned about due to my previous film “The Attack”. It was banned in Lebanon and I was very upset about this. I was very hurt because it was banned for stupid reasons. There’s no good reasons to ban a film. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Movement mounted a very vicious campaign labeling me all sort of stuff. And they managed to convince the Lebanese government and 22 Arab governments to ban “The Attack”. And when I came out to do “The Insult”, I was worried that those people were going to wage their campaign again and they did. They tried everything they could to stop the movie. I was concerned.

When the Lebanese government finally released it and then selected it to go to the Oscars and I was acquitted after the arrest, I was very happy. The rest is the cherry on the cake. I’m very happy that we’ve gotten where we are now. It would have been so difficult for me if this film was also banned. In fact, the BDS managed to ban it in Palestine. But that was the only place they managed, they failed everywhere else. It’s very unfortunate that the BDS is attacking artists who are doing movies. It’s fascist and it’s not right. And they are losing the battle.

SS: The film shows the public getting very invested in this trial and picking sides. Did you also find that the film divided audiences or did they come away with a more balanced perspective?

ZD: They did pick sides. When the film was shown in Lebanon, people did pick a side. I do take sides, I’m not neutral. It’s just that my sides shift. One time you’re with Tony the Christian, then you swing back and show the Palestinian perspective.

The Lebanese audience reacted extremely positively, especially the Christian community. Unfortunately, the Muslim community decided to take a negative stance towards the film because of the labeling from the BDS. But the film is #1 at the box office and I’m happy about that. You can’t please everyone.

SS: You’re known for making politically relevant films. Are you going to continue in that vein going forward?

ZD: You never choose your films in advance. I don’t like to be labeled. I want to continue telling stories, that’s all. Stories that speak to me, stories that are somehow autobiographical or stem from a personal perspective of things. I don’t want to be labeled. Maybe next time I’ll do a comedy. I follow a good story. Whatever speaks to me, I’ll do it.

“The Insult” is now playing in select theaters.