ROME – French-Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri said Monday that his detention at Beirut airport and subsequent questioning by a military tribunal were an attempt to suppress his new film, “The Insult,” which just won a prize at the Venice Film Festival and is Lebanon’s candidate for the foreign-language Oscar.
Doueiri spoke to Variety after being grilled for three hours Monday by a Lebanese military panel about his previous film, “The Attack,” which was partly shot in Israel. Lebanon bans its citizens from visiting Israel, because it is officially at war with the Jewish state. After his interrogation by the tribunal, Doueiri was released without charge, and his French and Lebanese passports, which had been confiscated at the airport, were returned to him.
Doueiri said his detention and court summons were clearly timed to disrupt the release of “The Insult,” which is slated to premiere in Lebanon on Tuesday, with Italia Films distributing. Doueiri’s fourth movie, it tells the story of a slur that ends up pitting a belligerent Lebanese Christian auto mechanic against an older Palestinian Muslim in a court case that divides Lebanese public opinion.
Critics in Venice lauded the film, which won Palestinian actor Kamel El Basha, one of the film’s two male leads, the Coppa Volpi for Best Actor in Venice on Saturday. But in Lebanon, there has been criticism of Doueiri in the local press over his having filmed “The Attack” in Israel and of the selection of “The Insult” for Oscar contention. Last week, Lebanese journalist Pierre Abi Saab slammed Doueiri in an editorial in the Al-Akhbar newspaper titled “Ziad Doueiri, apologize for your Israeli slip.”
“Today, Ziad Doueiri is coming on a white horse from Venice with a new movie expecting us to carry him on our shoulders and welcome him as a conqueror,” Abi Saab wrote. “We will not accept that the crime be covered.”
Doueiri said that, in the years since “The Attack” was launched in 2012, he had flown into Lebanon numerous times without being stopped. That film centers on an Arab surgeon in Israel who discovers that his wife is the perpetrator of a suicide bombing, and it was banned in Lebanon in 2013 because Doueiri partly filmed it in Israel and used some Israeli actors.
If Lebanese authorities wanted to pursue him for that, they’d had plenty of opportunities before Sunday, Doueiri said. “They just decided to do it now because ‘The Insult’ is coming out tomorrow and specifically because it will represent Lebanon at the Oscars,” he said, adding: “I don’t think there are any other reasons.”
The director also noted that he had received official permission to shoot “The Insult” in Lebanon. “I had a filming permit. I even used the security forces, and not a single problem had happened,” he said.
“Lebanon is a complicated place,” Doueiri added. “Just because one agency, the Ministry of Culture, selected the film as Lebanon’s candidate for the 2018 foreign Oscar, this does not mean that the security apparatus is necessarily linked to them.”
Indeed, Lebanese Culture Minister Ghattas Khoury spoke out in support of Doueiri on Monday. Khoury tweeted in Arabic that “Ziad Doueiri is a great Lebanese director who has been honored around the world. Respecting and honoring him is a must #Lebanon.”
The National Union of Italian Film Critics and the Venice International Critics’ Week section of the film festival also condemned Doueiri’s treatment by Lebanese authorities. “This is an unacceptable act of intimidation – an intolerable abuse of power,” the organizations said in a statement.
Doueiri said that “The Insult” would still premiere in Lebanon on Tuesday and go on release Thursday despite the efforts of his detractors. “They are trying to stop it from coming out, but they can’t,” he said.