Why Controversy Is Swirling Over Oscar-Nominated 'The Insult'

A courtroom drama of Lebanon's agony keeps Israel off-screen.

Photo Credit: Impelreport/Ezekiel Films

The Insult is a parable of the contemporary Middle East. A verbal altercation between a Palestinian engineer and a Lebanese auto mechanic escalates into fisticuffs and then a courtroom drama that interrogates the history and morality of Lebanese politics in the shadow of Israeli expansionism. 

Yasser, the engineer, runs a construction crew improving the infrastructure of gentrifying Beirut. Tony, the mechanic, runs a repair shop and tends to his pregnant wife. When Yasser replaces an illegal drain pipe on Tony’s balcony, Tony smashes his work. Yasser calls Tony a “f**king prick” and the escalatory cycle begins.

Historic grievances fuel their clash. The Palestinians, expelled from their homeland by Zionist victory in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, wound up in Jordan only to be expelled into Lebanon in 1970. Yasser, we learn, was part of this forced diaspora, which disrupted Lebanon’s balance of power between Christians and Muslims. In 1982, the Israelis, led by general Ariel Sharon, invaded Lebanon and were welcomed by the Lebanese Christians who resented the civil war that arrived with the Palestinian newcomers.

The two men embody this history. The stoic Yasser, played with seething intensity by Palestinian director Adel Karam, embodies his people's suffering and resistance right down to his name. (Yasser Arafat, the founding father of Palestinian nationalism, was an engineer by trade.) The volatile Tony dutifully attends a rally of the Lebanese Christian party and warms to the speeches of its right-wing leader, Bashir Gemayel, who waged brutal war on the Palestinians before being assassinated in 1982.

Yet the two men have more than a little in common. They are not intellectuals but practical men, sticklers for doing things the right way, right down to favoring German technology and disdaining Chinese knockoffs. They are devoted to their more sensible wives, yet can’t quite abide their pleas to resolve their dispute.

When Yasser’s boss brings him to Tony’s shop to apologize, Tony serves up his own insult saying, “I wish Sharon had wiped you all out.” Yasser assaults Tony and the feud goes to court where it became a political cause celebre, and the movie turns into a Levantine episode of “Law and Order.”

Tony’s lawyer, Wajdi Wehbe, portrayed with cynical verve by Camille Salamé, plays to the judges by portraying Tony as another victim of Palestinian aggression, while Yasser’s lawyer, who is Wehbe’s daughter, righteously defends her client as a political scapegoat. Along the way, the two men show a grudging respect for each other—Yasser refuses to repeat Tony’s insult in court; Tony starts Yasser’s sputtering car for him—even as their affair of honor is transformed into a political struggle beyond their control.

While schematically even-handed, The Insult sympathizes most with its Christian characters, insisting that the narrative of Palestinian suffering since 1948 has been privileged over the narrative of Christian suffering since 1970. The role of Israel in Lebanon’s agony is ever-present in Yasser and Tony’s story, yet not part of the drama on screen.

For this reason, Terri Ginsberg, a film scholar and a Palestinian solidarity activist, charges that The Insult seeks to legitimize Israel.

The Insult is a vehicle of Zionist propaganda (hasbara),” she writes in Mondoweiss. "[D]irector [Ziad] Doueiri has collaborated with Zionists in its making, in an effort to forward the normalization agenda which he evidently supports.”

Her evidence: Douerri, a cinematographer on two of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, received funding from a Hollywood production company run by Jewish Americans. He also filmed a previous movie in Israel, angering advocates of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.  “For these activists, boycotting The Insult is consistent with the divestment aspect of the BDS Call,” Ginsberg writes.

With its slick production values and first-class acting, The Insult has been nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign film category.

If you are a BDS activist, the movie may make your blood boil, just like Tony and Yasser’s. If you are a moviegoer in search of realistic Middle East drama without terrorists and stereotypes, The Insult won’t insult your intelligence. 

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Jefferson Morley is a senior writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. He is the editor the JFK Facts blog and author of The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin's Press). Follow him on Twitter @JeffersonMorley.