How singular confrontations embody goodness and achieve universality: Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult

Nadège Lourme is PhD Candidate at the University of Trondheim (NTNU).

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The Insult (2017), Ziad Doueiri‘s fourth feature film, begins with offensive words in one neighbourhood of Beirut and ends with national riots in the streets of the capital. It begins with the confrontation of two men, a Palestinian refugee and a Lebanese Christian and ends with their respective confrontation with past wounds and Lebanon’s confrontation with its own history. To go from one to another, the film takes us in the movement of its attentive and empathetic gaze and gives us, on the way, the possibility to experience something about goodness, where the concreteness of singularity becomes the sounding board of universality.

When the American philosopher Stanley Cavell focuses his interest upon the affinity between cinema, the good films and a specific conception of good which escapes the moral philosophical approaches (Kantian deontological philosophy and Utilitarianism) they teach in American universities [Cavell 2003: 84], he brings to light the cinema’s ability to make the spectator experiences “a moral tonality” that is not an illustration of moral precepts but a kind of good perceptible in dialogues, and discernable on the verge of a human gesture, posture or face.

The flow of habits and routines populating our daily life prevents us to fully be aware of others’ expressions. Cinema can change and correct our focus. It can make us see what we miss in the realm of our ordinary life. By doing so, it already bears the germs of what it is necessary to favor a kind of perceptual moral: attention. Cinema can orient our gaze towards what matters. Then the spectator can sense a common moral ground by recognizing a way of being in the world, which expresses itself through words and on the surface of bodies caught in concrete situations.

Indeed, apart from rare exceptions, films always already show us singular existences and specific bodies evolving in the concreteness of (extra)ordinary lives. When they make a world appear by keeping the thickness of things’ and beings’ singularity which inhabit it, they carries into their heart the capacity to express and not demonstrate, to incarnate points of view more than stating and illustrating ideas.

Yet cinema can produce films with ready-made thinking, cultivate clichés or generate thesis-films, but when films explore their ability to incarnate a dimension of good through concrete situations and individuals, they might invite their spectators to embody good as well. The Insult (2017), the fourth feature films directed by Ziad Doueiri and co-written with Joelle Touma, is one of them.

Ziad Doueiri.

For Cavell “comedies of remarriage” (several films belonging to Hollywood cinema from the 30s and 40s) enlighten moments in life where a character transforms himself in his confrontation and relation with the other. By doing so, he develops what Cavell calls a kind of perfectionism through which he comes in accordance with himself and his choices. By witnessing moments of ordinary life where individuals become a better version of themselves, the spectator can affectively identify herself with some moments of existence where it is possible to find the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary [Cavell 2003].

Even if The Insult does neither belong to the genre of “comedies of remarriage” nor represents only moments of ordinary life, it nevertheless strongly and beautifully reasserts and renews one of the things, according to Cavell, cinema can do: make us sense the good through the ongoing existences of fictive human beings it puts on a screen.

The film puts face-to-face two men who, in terms of Lebanese history, are enemies: Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a Christian and enthusiastic supporter of the right-wing political party, the Lebanese Forces, and Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian refugee. Through a confrontation that unfolds within words, with fists, through gazes and inside a courtroom, both men will cope with old wounds, evolve and change and ultimately come into peace with themselves. The camera, by staying closed to them and to the others around them as well and by varying its point-of-view, carries the spectator along in a persistent movement, which transforms her gaze in an attentive and caring one.

The Insult starts with harsh words that escalate into physical violence and become a conflict, which moves into a courtroom and ends with national riots in the streets of Beirut. Between these two extremities, actions and events succeed each other in an energetic rhythm and through a plausible progression, reminding us that in the Middle East, as Tony’s father points out, wars can begin with humiliating comments.

It begins with one insult. Yasser works illegally as a construction foreman for a company that undertakes renovation works in Fassouh, a Christian neighborhood of the Lebanese capital. One day, he received water on his head while he was provided guidelines to his crew in the street. It came from a pipe sticking out from Tony’s balcony. After having tried to speak with him without success, Yasser quickly replaced the illegal water pipe with an improved one in accordance with regulations. Tony hammered it away and Yasser answers to his act of vandalism by insulting him: “Fucking prick!”

Tony requests an apology from Yasser otherwise he will launch a lawsuit against him. Yasser’s boss, Talal (Talal Jurdi), and wife, Manal (Christine Choueiri), knowing the consequences that a trial might have on the future of a worker with illegal status, urge him to apologize. To do so, Talal drives Yasser to Tony’s garage. From the TV’s repair shop, arises the virulence of a speech pronounced by Bachir Gemayel, who founded the Lebanese Forces militia that he led from 1976 to his death in 1982. The words full of hatred, delivered against the Palestinian presence on Lebanon’s territory, make it even more difficult for Yasser to provide an apology that he had already only unwillingly agreed to give. When Tony, who stands in front of him waiting for him to apologize, feels his reluctance, he mistreats him verbally and achieves his assault by an ultimate insult: “I wish that Sharon wiped you all out!” and Yasser fights back by punching Tony onto the ribs.

Tony lays a complaint with the police against Yasser and the conflict is brought before the court of first instance. In this first trial scene, Tony underlines that he doesn’t want pecuniary compensation but apology when Yasser, who pleads guilty, doesn’t want to repeat the words that drove him to punch Tony in the ribs. While one man wants justice, the other one doesn’t believe in it anymore and both of them remain unyielding and petrified in their default positions. Neither Yasser nor Tony want to be defended by a lawyer, so the defendant sitting in the dock back bars and the plaintiff standing in the witness box become the only interlocutors of the judge, who sits behind a raised desk. The eye of the camera, which often switches its focus between the three main protagonists, espouses their static positions. Through its own partial lack of movement, the camera embodies Yasser’s and Tony’s firm posture.

The judge dismisses the case, underlining that the men don’t tell everything. If he refers here to the insult Tony threw at Yasser’s face, we can hear his comment differently. From this moment, if we try to look back to the course of events, in order to recall the successive steps that lead the two men to the courtroom, holding on one, we are irremediably sent further to another one. The rib punch is caused by an insult itself seemingly provoked by an indefinitely deferred apology, which in turn appears to be the consequence of a destroyed pipe and so on. Moving upstream I remember the origin of the conflict but I am stuck with the feeling that the answer is elsewhere. After the judge’s remark, the question Manal asks earlier in the film, “What did it begin with? The water pipe or fucking prick?”, takes on another dimension. It resonates even stronger when, later, she points out to Yasser that the judge must have understood that it was about something else than a broken pipe. To foreground what is already here but unseen, the film has to dislodge Tony and Yasser from their frozen position.

The Insult compels the spectator to improve her attention, her ability to see and to listen. Right from the film’s beginning, in the midst of a dialog, the course of one sentence and the movement of a face or a changing gaze, we sense that the reason of the conflict is more complex, that there is a something else. By adopting and showing specific movements (movement of the camera, movement of the characters inside the frame, rhythm and editing), the film sets these men in motion, brings to surface their past, moves them and ultimately move us.

The address of the camera often evokes characters’ states of mind and emotions rather than emphasizes them. The spectator, when embracing the film’s attentiveness, cultivates her own and, by doing so, intensifies her empathetic engagement with them. One evocative and poignant scene is in this regard quite eloquent. Tony has collapsed after he had tried to lift a heavy car battery. Shirine (Rita Hayek), his pregnant wife, who has discovered him unconscious on the workshop’s floor, attempts to drag him to their car. In the next sequence, Tony wakes up at the hospital (shot 1). Nobody watches over him. He gets up and walks with difficulty in the corridors. We discover with him Shirine lying on a bed through the open doorway of a room but we rather deduce her presence than watching her.

The composition of the shot precludes our gaze. Indeed, only Tony’s head, which is in the foreground, is clearly discernible. The shot’s low depth of field and the movement of a nurse in the background make Shirine barely distinguishable (shot 2). In the two next shots, we see them in close-up. Tony leans his face on hers and gently strokes it (shot 3). Because of his pain, the analgesic drug with which he was probably administered and his concern for his wife, Tony has until now first of all focused on her face and only then discovers her belly that has lost its roundness (shot 4). Because we have shared, by virtue of the shot described above (shot 2), his partial momentary blindness, we share now his painful surprise as well. In a next shot, we see Tony’s face that seems to lose itself in sadness while tears are about to come to his eyes (shot 5) but then the reverse shot reveals his premature daughter Sethrida sleeping in an incubator.

When we see his face again, thanks to the camera’s sharp eye that has soberly let us guess Tony’s successive states of mind, we are now able to sense all the range of emotions which are connected to them; we are able to sense not only his sadness but also his concern, relief and anger.

Both Tony and Yasser are conscientious workers, concerned with the quality of their work. Both are stubborn, honest and good men. The film, by initiating an oscillating movement from the one to the other, creates parallels and resonances between them, which reinforce their common points.

It can be through mise-en-scène and editing. The sequence where Tony meets his lawyer, the well-known Christian Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh) and the latter’s legal assistants is followed by the scene where a less experienced lawyer and sympathizer of the Palestinian cause, Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Bou Abboud), visits Manal and Yasser in order to convince the latter to let her defend him. Both scenes strongly resonate in each other as Tony advocates for Yasser while Yasser advocates for Tony in front of their respective lawyer.

Sometimes a shot becomes the reflection of another one, placing the men in reversible positions. For instance, the one showing Yasser looking at Tony’s reflection in the inside mirror of his car when he passed Tony’s garage on his way to work (shot 6), finds its own mirroring image in a later shot, where Tony looks at Yasser’s reflection in his rear-view mirror after their meeting with Lebanese President (shot 7).

This shot actually belongs to a touching scene that, through framing, mise-en-scène and composition, visually brings the men together. Let us take a closer look at it.

The case has been referred to the Supreme Court and has become a national issue after clashes rose in Beirut’s streets. They have just met the President who tried to persuade them to drop the case for the stability of the nation. They leave the meeting together and head towards their cars that are parked next to each other. In a shot showing them sitting in their respective vehicle, we can almost trace an invisible symmetrical axis by which Tony and Yasser seem to superimpose each other (shot 8).

Then Tony begins to drive away but turns around when he understands that Yasser is stuck probably because of mechanical problems. Tony cannot resist the temptation to fix Yasser’s car. After the film visually placed the men in resonance with each other, Tony finds a way towards Yasser, not through declaration or statement but through what constitute for him the most banal gestures, the gestures he routinely repeats, i.e. the gestures of a car mechanic. Tony may act according to a kind of professional diligence, of compassion, or according to the recognition of a common point between Yasser and himself, namely their love of a job well done. Because the good is incarnate in the concreteness of a gesture, it allows the spectator to experience the extraordinary in the heart of the ordinary. The scene ends with the faces of the two men on which we can guess a nascent curve that is not yet the sketch of a smile but something that resembles to it (shots 9 and 10).

When the trial moves from the lower court to the Supreme Court composed of three judges, the film’s dominant spatial configuration changes. Until now, unless rare exceptions, interior spaces were porous. Wide open windows and doors, balconies, terraces let the warm and moist air of Beirut circulate inside, and the camera moved between inside and outside spaces with almost the same ease.

With the trial scenes, the film explores the new range of possibilities the indoor physical space of the courtroom offers. The Insult, which here inscribed itself in the vein of American courtroom dramas, closely follows the movements of the lawyers, switches points of view between them but also embeds the ones of the witnesses, the plaintiff, the defendant and the President judge. While doing so, it can look out for a detail and catch the expressivity of a gesture or the changes of facial expression. It visually embodies positions, oppositions, unexpected developments, evolutions of states and arguments. In this regard, the film never takes a side. It rather encourages the spectator to share her empathic allegiance between Tony and Yasser. At the beginning of the film, I am inclined to empathize with Yasser. Yet, by virtue of the film’s empathic focus, which constantly oscillates between one to the other and closely approach each of them with equal caring, I am coerced to also direct my engagement with Tony.

Because The Insult does not pretend to produce a message and only deals with the drama of individuals, it convokes the Lebanese history only through singular lives and makes us to bodily engage with some of its perspectives.

Wajdi Wehbe, who wants to explain his client’s anger and need for recognition through apology, reopens Tony’s old sores by questioning him about a traumatizing episode of his childhood. While projecting footage images in the courtroom, he refers to and explains the massacre of Damour. In January 1976, Palestinian and left-wing militias invaded Damour, a town about 20 km south of Beirut inhabited by Maronite Christians, and killed about 582 civilians. Tony and is father survived the tragedy and were forced to flee the coastal town. Damour massacre constitutes one aspect of Lebanon’s traumatic past with witch the country still has a hard time to deal.

The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 caused the violent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were forced to flee to neighbouring countries and territories (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, Gaza) where refugee camps were constructed. The temporary camps set up in Lebanon became permanent homes. In the decades that followed, the balance of power between the different Lebanese political forces was challenged by both Western involvements in the region and the geopolitical crisis and issues that imbued the Middle East. Tensions between the Maronite Christians on one side and the Palestinians and progressive left-wing sympathizers on the other grew and lead to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990).

On the aftermath of the civil war, following the Taif Agreement, the Lebanese parliament ratified an amnesty law (the law does not applied for the [attempted] murder of religious and political personalities and Arabic and foreign diplomats) on 26 August 1991, for all the crimes committed before the 28th March 1991. The law was meant to be a call for forgiveness, to compel the Lebanese to draw on their own innermost ability to resilience in order to escape the vicious circle of violent and bloody vengeance. Yet most of the Lebanon’s population believe that the amnesty law has offered impunity to those who violated human rights during the war and has therefore restrained the possibility of a genuine reconciliation. Indeed, the law has condemned both the institutions and the society to a collective amnesia. The massacre of Damour is one of the painful events remained hidden under a cloak of silence. By making this overshadowed tragic event one of its essential plot elements, The Insult has brought into the spotlight an episode of the civil war that has been much less discussed than other Palestinian tragedies as, for instance, the massacres of Sabra and Shatila. The film modestly reestablishes, for a time of a movie, a kind of balance.

Tony’s painful past responds to Yasser’s one and Yasser’s silent shame and humiliation responds to Tony’s talkative anger. In September 1970 (known as “Black September”) the Jordanian army, which took order from the King of Jordan Hussein bin Talal, bombed the Palestinian refugee camps where Palestinian fedayeen had taken refuge in order to reduce their growing influence in the country. Most civilians were killed. Tony’s lawyer, who seeks to question Yasser’s moral probity, calls to the witness bar a man who, as a military cook, distributed food to the refugees when the conflict ended in July 1971. One day, he tried to get back a bit of bread a child had just took without permission. Yasser, who lived in one of the bombarded camps, witnessed the incident and mistook him for a Jordanian soldier. Already exasperated by the conflict, he strongly overreacted to the hardness with which the man treated the child. He violently hit him on the head, sending him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

After the ultimate revelations, Yasser goes to Tony’s garage. It’s late and Tony has to open the sliding security door to come closer to the Palestinian (and to let Yasser come closer to him). Yasser stands in front of the now open garage entrance just at the spot he stood several days earlier when he punched Tony who had just insulted him. Yasser rhetorically asks him how many of his ribs he broke and after he answered himself to his own question, he reiterates and renews their earlier confrontation by inversing the roles. He hurts Tony with insulting comments, pushing him to fight back. After Tony punched him in the stomach, Yasser can finally look at him in the eyes and pronounces the long-awaited words: “I apologize.” The verbal and physical violence now take on another significance. Yasser’s insulting comments, by giving Tony the opportunity to strike back, restore equality between them and reassert their dignity. Yasser’s apology provokes on Tony a cathartic effect and allows him to face his past. Tony can go back to Damour.

Against the background of undecidability emerges the possibility of recognition. The trial closes on a nonunanimous verdict: two votes against one declare Yasser no guilty. No one really wins, no one really looses, but Yasser is free and the justice has acknowledged Tony’s grievance. The two men leave the courthouse. Tony who is about to step in a police car turns around and looks up to Yasser standing at the top of the building’s steps. In a touching shot reverse shot, the men exchange a bit of a smile with another (shots 11 and 12). Their exchange echoes another one. Right after the verdict falls, the lawyers Wajdi and Nadine, who happen to be father and daughter, look at each other (shots 13 and 14). It might be difficult to clearly discern every thought that cross these four faces, but through their sober expressions points something that looks like mutual respect and recognition.

The mutual recognition between the two men was made possible through face-to-face encounters, both direct and mediated by legal institution. These kinds of encounter implied remembering. If something as a pardon is possible between Tony and Yasser, it requires memory. To pardon means also to remember what matters in order to be able to forget what can be forget. By also dealing with resilience on the level of individuals, The Insult indirectly questions the work of collective reconciliation promoted by the amnesty law and its missing connection with other ones: work of memory, of recognition and of retribution.

According to Paul Ricœur, we evolve and become someone else both through time and with others. By really facing others, we, in turn, become ourselves as another. Yasser and Tony have changed in their confrontation with each other and each of them had to recognize the other in order to also recognize oneself [Ricœur 2015]. By being drawn in the attentive and caring address the film direct towards them, the spectator might be literally and figuratively moved by Yasser’s and especially Tony’s evolution.

In the film’s last moments, the camera tracks back and up to reveal the dense cityscape of Beirut, its contrasts, chaos, warm colors and indefinable beauty. The electronic non-diegetic music prevents us to encapsulate it in exoticism. The capital surely still bears the scars of the war but what we see is also a city under continuous construction.

At the end of The Insult, I can risk an answer to the question-title under which several essays of Cavell translated in French have been published together: Le cinéma nous rend-il meilleurs? (Does cinema make us a better person?) [Cavell 2003].

Sometimes it does. Without demonstration or assertion. Only with the ambiguity and thickness of singular existences.

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Bibliography:

Cavell, S., 2003, Le cinéma nous rend-il meilleurs? Bayard: Paris.

Ricœur, P., 2015, Soi-même comme un autre. Points: Paris.

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