Controversy has arisen in recent weeks over the 2017 film, The Insult [Qadiat raqm 23 (Case #23)], Lebanon’s submission to the 2018 Academy Awards. The film’s director, Ziad Doueiri, who also directed West Beirut [À l’abri les enfants] (Sheltered Children)] (1998), is a proponent of Israeli normalization, a political strategy by and large rejected by Palestinians and their allies because its position concerning the Israeli occupation of historic Palestine entails an unacceptable compromise with Zionism. Normalization not only accepts a Jewish presence in the region–something to which most proponents of either the one- or two-state solution would agree–but consents to its continuation in the form of Zionist hegemony. Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) supporters, who reject normalization, are calling for a boycott of The Insult, not only because, in line with normalization tactics, it was made with Zionist funding, but because Doueiri “previously lived and worked with Zionists while making [his 2012 film] The Attack” (Mada Masr, 1 Feb. 2018), a pro-Israeli take on suicide bombers, and used an Israeli production company to help fund it (Dina Abumaria, 29 Oct. 2017). For these activists, boycotting The Insult is consistent with the divestment aspect of the BDS Call.
The Insult presents us with a sophistical narrative structure. Its story is self-consciously organized into multiple allegorical layers, the meaning and significance of which are intentionally obscured and bound up with specious reasoning that distorts and exploits the historical record. In an attempt to counter the resulting confusion, I supply below six straightforward, interconnected analytic points regarding the film. These points are meant to underscore, through clarification, the dual fact that The Insult is a vehicle of Zionist propaganda (hasbara) and that director Doueiri has collaborated with Zionists in its making, in an effort to forward the normalization agenda which he evidently supports.
1) Although The Insult is structured as an allegory, the moral of its story turns on the Damour massacre of 1976, the film’s attribution of which to Palestinian forces, who were in fact operating in concert with the Lebanese left during an active military conflict–the Lebanese Civil War–is presented completely out of historical context. In turn, the massive Israeli bombing of Palestinian-controlled Damour in 1982, eight months prior to the genocidal Sabra and Shatila massacre perpetrated by ultra-nationalist Maronites with Israeli approval and support, is never mentioned. As a result, the Sabra and Shatila massacre implicitly becomes an understandable act of Maronite revenge for the Damour massacre, while Maronite collaboration with Zionism in this crucial context is downplayed. By this tack, Palestinian refugees and ultra-nationalist Maronites are positioned as moral equivalents, while the right-wing view is retained of Palestinians as foreigners who are prone to instigate violence and who should therefore be deported from (or at least not permitted socio-economic integration into) Lebanon–rather than as loyal opponents of fascism who in fact struggled historically in solidarity with the Lebanese left against the disproportionately overwhelming violence perpetrated by Maronite ultra-nationalists and their Israeli allies during the period in question.
2) This positioning of the two main parties to the film’s narrative conflict as morally equivalent is easily belied by the film’s own dramatic structure, in which the right-wing Maronite character, protagonist Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), is portrayed as three-dimensional and psychologically complex, his personal struggle positioned at the film’s dramatic center, while the Palestinian character, antagonist Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamal El Basha), serves basically as his foil and as such is portrayed in a more simplified manner.
3) Likewise in typical hasbara fashion, The Insult reinforces the stereotypical view of excessive violence as somehow inherent to Arab men, and of an exotic passivity as inherent to Arab women. Both Yasser and Tony are portrayed, albeit in differing ways, as irrational and unable to control their tempers, whereas their wives, Manal Salameh (Christine Choueiri) and Shirine Hanna (Rita Hayek), are portrayed as sympathetic and emotionally intuitive. Likewise, the female attorney, Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Bou Abboud), who defends Yasser in a lawsuit brought against him by Tony, is portrayed as calm and receptive, while Tony’s male attorney, Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), is portrayed as verbally abusive and interruptive. Similarly, a group of Palestinian males depicted protesting the trial outside the courthouse are depicted as immature and thuggish–in this instance as no better than the Maronite ultra-nationalist males with whom they spar; moreover, women play no role in such apparent political spectacles. Together, these tactics serve to reinforce the moral equivalency discourse, in this instance along conventional gender lines, while naturalizing the film’s core conflict through racist ideology.
4) The Insult nonetheless purports a feminist sensibility, in that Nadine ultimately wins her legal case. Yet the film’s feminism is contradicted not only by the elements in point #3 above. Nadine wins her case with the surreptitious help of Wajdi, who early on is revealed to be her father. Wajdi’s male pride will not permit him to lose his case, so he decides to manipulate the proceedings, at once bringing about the “realization” of moral equivalence and the acquittal of his daughter’s client. His paternalism not only reinforces patriarchy but a sense that the moral high ground belongs to the political Right: Wajdi is a well-known litigator on behalf of the Maronite ultra-nationalist cause.
5) In line with this right-wing slant, when political-economic factors in The Insult‘s narrative conflict are raised, they serve merely as background for dissimulating the film’s Zionist undercurrents rather than for genuinely analyzing the situation in Lebanon. For example, we are given to know superficially that Tony is unemployed and cannot find affordable housing under neoliberal conditions of urban gentrification, whereas Yasser works for a construction company that is actively facilitating that gentrification–a symptomatically unexplored allegorical reference to the situation of economically challenged Israeli settlers, on the one hand, and the Palestinians whom they are displacing, and who are often compelled, under such conditions, to work for Israeli construction companies, on the other hand, that is never made explicit in the context of the trial which comprises the film’s central drama. In effect, The Insult projects an Israeli predicament onto Lebanon–and resolves it ideologically in a direction amenable to Zionism and condescending, damaging–insulting–to Arabs.
6) None of the above is surprising. At least two of The Insult‘s production companies, Cohen Media Group and Ezekiel Film Productions, are of dubious ideological-political origin. Both produce slick “world cinema” fare intended primarily for international film festival and art house audiences and not for populations indigenous to third and fourth world countries in which many of their films’ narratives are set. Making films for distribution on the world cinema circuit is a common tactic of hasbara tactic, the aim of which is to persuade international audiences of the correctness of Zionist perspectives. Cohen Media Group is a New York-based company whose founder, real estate magnate Charles S. Cohen, was awarded the 2002 Israel Peace Medal for having raised an all-time record $52.4 million in donations to the State of Israel Bonds, and was also honored for his “humanitarian” and community service by the pro-Zionist organization, B’nai Brith International. Ezekiel Film Production’s main website is devoid of transparency, and its secondary website lists it as yet another U.S. company based in Los Angeles, where Cohen Media Group also has offices. Another of the film’s production companies, Rouge International, is based in France and produces world cinema fare, as does Tessalit Films, which is listed as both based in France and as a Weinstein company with offices in New York City, as well as Scope Pictures, which is based in Brussels.
Insofar as the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rarely honors films from the Arab world on (prejudicial) account of their presumed anti-Zionism or that of their makers, it is little wonder that The Insult was selected for submission to this year’s competition. One wonders who will fund Doueiri’s next film project, which is rumored to be an all-out condemnation of BDS.