EXCLUSIVE: Franco-Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri had a rough road to get to a Foreign Language Oscar nomination today with his drama, The Insult — including being arrested just after it premiered in Venice. Still, there’s comfort in the first-ever nomination for Lebanon since it began submitting films in 1978. Doueiri’s West Beirut was the second-ever movie entered, yet no film prior to The Insult had ever even advanced to the shortlist. Today’s selection comes at a time when Lebanon has been making headlines over censorship with Steven Spielberg’s The Post banned last week, only to be allowed to screen when the Prime Minister stepped in to overrule the decision.
The Insult is story of an insult blown out of proportion that lands two men, one a Lebanese Christian, the other a Palestinian refugee, in court. The film was targeted, Doueiri tells me by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) when he was detained in Beirut in September after the film won the Best Actor Volpi Cup for Kamel El Basha in Venice. His passports were also confiscated and his presence required at a military tribunal.
The focus of the inquest was said to be his having shot part of his previous film, The Attack, in Israel. Lebanese citizens are banned from visiting the country and The Attack had previously been banned in 22 Arab countries including Lebanon. Doueiri today tells me that the arrest was actually “based on The Insult… The BDS wanted to shut down The Insult because of the content, but they couldn’t do it legally,” yet had reasons for The Attack. The matter was quickly resolved because “the judge was smart enough to say even though The Attack violated the law by shooting in Israel years ago, the statute of limitations had run out.”
The incident brought international attention to Doueiri and his film. There was then a certain “gratification” to having it selected as Lebanon’s Oscar entry. Today’s nomination, Doueiri told me from Toulouse where he is supporting the French release of the film, is “phenomenal.” And, it’s a comfort. “When you are attacked in such a vicious manner and then arrested, it fragilizes you. No matter how optimistic you are or how much you want to tell the truth.”
He adds that the arrest in September “was about treason” and that he was called “a collaborator.” These are “very serious matters that are very difficult to be erased. It scares you. When I got arrested I was thinking about my daughter. It still makes you feel terrible even despite how innocent you are.”
The Oscar news, which he got as he stepped on a plane today, “Gives you some sort of redemption even though it’s not your fault. It gives you some comfort that you are protected from some place. Those that attack you will attack you more, but you become more immune.”
Charles Cohen, Chairman and CEO of Cohen Media Group and co-producer of The Insult is, by the way, “thrilled” to have The Insult included in this year’s class of nominees. “We have supported the full trajectory” of both The Insult and Agnes Varda’s doc nominee Faces Places, he says. “As stalwart supporters of Foreign Language cinema we are especially pleased.”
With regard to Lebanon, Doueiri says, “it’s so great,” says Doueiri. He also believes it comes at a notable time given the situation over The Post last week. “There was a huge problem about that and counter-campaigning by artists who said you cannot boycott a movie whether you agree with Spielberg’s politics or not.” It’s all tied together says Doueiri, and both movies’ victories are significant because “we’re winning those battles. It’s about freedom of expression.”
The Insult had a successful run upon its release in Lebanon. The BDS, says Doueiri, “organized a vicious campaign but the film was successful and we got what we wanted.” He takes care to note that it was not the government fighting him. “Lebanon is a complicated place to explain,” he says.