Arrest, ‘normalisation’ charges face Lebanese film-maker upon return from film festival

Fresh perspective. Palestinian actor Kamel El Basha holds aloft the Volpi Cup for best actor for his role in ‘The Insult’ at the 74th Venice Film Festival, on September 9.

As a rule, international travel is rarely trouble free. Still, the last thing that crossed the mind of celebrated Lebanese film-maker Ziad Doueiri when his flight touched down in Beirut earlier this month was that he would be de­tained by Lebanese General Security for two hours and have his Lebanese and French passports confiscated.
That Doueiri was shortly released is a matter of record. However, the incident and the vicious media cam­paign now directed against Doueiri have highlighted the ignoble tussle within Lebanon over moral owner­ship of the Palestinian cause.
Doueiri’s reception probably wasn’t what he had expected. He was returning from the Venice Inter­national Film Festival where his lat­est film, “The Insult,” had scooped a prize. Instead of receiving a warm welcome, however, he was detained and summoned to a military court, charged with violating the Lebanese penal code during the production of an earlier film, 2012’s “The Attack,” which was partly filmed in Israel, a country Lebanon remains officially at war with.
Speaking by phone, Doueiri de­nied the charge that his actions helped normalise relations with Is­rael: “Normalisation means a policy pursued by two government entities and not a lone act by an individual, and though I was very much aware of the political implications of this act, it was never my intention nor the message of the movie to endorse normalisation with Israel,” he said.
Though the case was dismissed by the Military Tribunal as falling out­side of Lebanon’s statute of limita­tions, Doueiri questioned the timing of the smear campaign he now feels has been directed at him. Along with the decision not to screen his latest film in cinemas throughout Beirut, column inches have been dedicated to sabotaging both the film and its maker’s reputation. Much of the impetus for this, Doueiri claims, is “The Insult,” which challenges the accepted narrative of the civil war and the plight of Palestinians within Lebanon. They “do not like the fact that this film is challenging their monopoly of the Palestinian cause, especially that our lead Palestinian actor has won the top prize at the Venice festival,” Doueiri said.
Much of the public criticism lev­elled at Doueiri has come from circles affiliated with Lebanese so­cial lynchpin Pierre Abi Saab, who also serves as cultural editor of the pro-Syrian daily, al-Akhbar. Abi Saab ,who initiated the smear campaign against Doueiri, wrote that Doueiri, whom he labels a Zionist, is part of a master project to normalise Arab perception of the murderous Israeli state. To anyone familiar with the local setting, branding someone a Zionist is nothing short of putting a bullseye on their back, something that Abi Saab and his cadre appear to have little shame in doing.
While much of the case against Doueiri has been couched within moral and philosophical frame­works, the undercurrent of violence is tangible. Writing on Facebook, journalist Hasan Illeik commented that anyone within Lebanon pro­moting Israel, such as Doueiri, should be locked up or shot. “These matters cannot be resolved through debate. A person who has visited Israel and stayed for 11 months and made a film with the Israelis and preaching to us the greatness of Is­raeli society cannot be rewarded. What type of dialogue are we to have with him? Locking up such people and executing spies and some of those endorsing normalisation and suppressing any voice which sup­ports them is the only way. After we do that we can debate everything else.”
It has become clear that the case against Doueiri has grown beyond the courts. Nadine Farghal, a Leba­nese lawyer and activist, argued that Doueiri’s detractors believe “that the legitimacy of their claim supersedes Lebanese laws and thus Ziad should be judged in the court of public opinion.”
Despite the heated accusations of collaboration with an enemy power, Farghal pointed to many contradic­tions in people’s attempts to vilify Doueiri. Principally that individuals belonging to the anti-normalisation group were vocal supporters of Fayez Karam, a member of Michael Aoun’s political party who was found guilty of collaborating with Israeli intelligence in 2012.
Much of the attack on Doueiri serves to distract from “The Insult,” which tackles the themes of the Leb­anese civil war and the importance of post-war reconciliation between both the Lebanese themselves, and with their Palestinian guests. How­ever, none of the agitators appear to care that the latest film, which places the plight of the Palestinians forced to live in legal limbo and in dire economic conditions at the very centre of the debate.
More importantly, the film chal­lenges the traditional stereotype of helpless Palestinians that critics have manipulated and bent to their cause in an effort to validate their own standing. The greatest insult here is probably to the Lebanese themselves, who are presented with the choice of either conforming to someone else’s vision of the issues Doueiri raises or weathering accu­sations of Zionism and the death threats that too often accompany them.
Makram Rabah
is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. He is the author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.