Culture

Film & Television

The personal is political in ‘The Insult’

By Tristen Harwood
Ziad Doueiri’s tense film excavates Lebanon’s violent past

When a seemingly minor conflict between two middle-aged men escalates, it casts them back into the violence and anguish of the decades-past Lebanese Civil War. The Insult, directed by Ziad Doueiri, plots the troubled reconciliation between the two men, and the unresolvable tensions inherent in any act of forgiveness.

Tony (Adel Karam), a Lebanese Christian mechanic, and Yasser (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian Muslim foreperson, have a minor quarrel when Yasser’s construction crew repairs a leaking drainpipe attached to the balcony of Tony’s apartment. Furious at having his domain infringed, Tony smashes the new drainpipe using a hammer. In return, Yasser insults Tony, calling him a “fucking prick”, and then Tony demands an apology. The situation only gets worse when they end up in court. What transpires threatens to return all of Beirut into sectarian conflict.

The opening scene introduces Tony at a Christian Phalange party rally. A zealous party supporter, he sits among the other flag-wavers as the party’s leader instructs them to be faithful to Bachir Gemayel, the Christian militia commander who was momentarily president-elect before being assassinated in 1982.

Gemayel is a spectral figure in the film, but for Tony he is an important link to the past. Tony constantly replays Gemayel’s old anti-Palestinian speech on a television in his workshop, confirming his own bigoted worldview. And to the dismay of his pregnant wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek), Tony keeps a poster of the party leader above their unborn child’s cot.

Yasser is a Palestinian refugee, and when Tony demands an apology from him, it is not so they can make amends, but to force Yasser to admit defeat as a Palestinian. The civil war may officially have ended, but daily life in Beirut is still a battlefield.

For the most part, Yasser meets Tony’s outward hostility with stubborn silence. A construction foreman with a civil engineering degree, for years Yasser has lived in Beirut with his Lebanese wife Manal (Christine Choueiri), but is legally not allowed to work; it’s a precarious situation.

When coaxed by his boss finally to apologise, Yasser arrives at Tony’s workshop only to hear the sound of Gemayel’s anti-Palestinian rant ringing from Tony’s television. The two men share a tense moment of silence as they come to realise the impossibility of forgiveness, then Tony tells Yasser, “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.” The tension of forced repentance and forgiveness erupts – neither man wants to forget past afflictions or accept the other’s difference.

For Tony, Yasser’s reaction to Gemayel prompts an existential dilemma; he realises that he only offers forgiveness on the condition that Yasser change in a way that is not possible. What’s more, he understands that such forgiveness would exfoliate the boundary he perceives between his Christian self and the Palestinian other he sees in Yasser. Ironically, Tony’s anti-Palestine statement functions as a kind of self-incriminating critique of the Christian philosophy of repentance-forgiveness: the kind of apology Tony wants from Yasser has a kind of cultural violence embedded in it.

Similarly, for Yasser, offering a forced apology would bring him together with Tony in a way that he could not accept, particularly when Tony’s slur positions Yasser as the one who must erase, or at least subsume, his political and cultural identity in order to make amends.

Revenge is the only mode of redress that either man is evidently willing to accept.

The conflict shifts to the legal system. Tony hires a right-wing Christian lawyer (played by Camille Salameh). Yasser, meanwhile, is represented by the lawyer who turns up at his door (played by Diamand Bou Abboud), and who is later revealed to be the opposing counsel’s daughter – an unnecessary narrative complexity that contributes little to the plot, but signals the gaudiness of the film’s portrayal of court proceedings.

The Insult discards subtlety once the trial begins to unfold, with surprise witnesses and evidence appearing to rebuke assumptions about the characters’ histories. Unsurprisingly, both men have endured extremely violent pasts. It is revealed that Tony and Yasser both experienced atrocities at the hands of political groups seeking to erase not only them as individuals, but their cultural identities. The violence of their pasts cannot be forgiven and continues to affect their everyday lives and interpersonal relationships.

The film resists offering a sentimental resolution between the men. Instead, it subtly exposes the residue of past atrocities. What began as a personal conflict between Tony and Yasser was already inflected with the weight of history and politics; for either man to forgive the other is to deny the past, a past to which each feels he has a duty in the name of its victims.

The mirroring of the protagonists, who feel their masculinity is under threat, is overstated. Their wives, Shirine and Manal, are foils to their stubborn pride and act as clichéd symbols of domesticity. They create a sphere in which Tony and Yasser respectively can hold their pasts and masculinity intact. Ultimately, however, it is through their wives, whose emotional investment is unacknowledged, that the men find forgiveness.

The Insult, an energetic excavation of Lebanon’s contested violent past, is about how trauma weighs on the lives of men who see the world as a site of conflict. Ultimately, it is by acknowledging that conflict continues in their lives that the characters are able to accept the past and move forward.

 

The Insult is in cinemas now.

Tristen Harwood

Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer, cultural critic and researcher, now living in Naarm (Melbourne).

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