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How Director Ziad Doueiri Learned Empathy While Making Lebanon’s ‘The Insult’

“When you sit down with your supposed enemy and you hear what they say, you start having empathy,” Doueiri tells TheWrap’s Steve Pond

Director Ziad Doueiri was writing his film “The Insult” with his wife, Joelle Touma, as they were going through a divorce.

“I think it’s the best divorce I’ve ever had,” Doueiri jokingly told TheWrap’s Steve Pond at TheWrap’s Awards and Foreign Screening Series at the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

The two of them came from different political backgrounds, he from a left wing Lebanese family that supported the Palestinians, and she from a right wing, Christian background. But in co-writing “The Insult,” a courtroom drama about an insult blown out of proportion, they agreed to write the opposite perspective of which they were familiar.

“It allowed us to understand the opposite view. It’s called empathy,” Doueiri said. “She knew her material so well, and I knew my material so well.”

“The Insult,” Lebanon’s official submission to this year’s Foreign Language race, is set in modern Beirut, in which a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee wind up in court after the two trade barbs and refuse to let it go. As their case gets put through the scrutiny of the media, they’re forced to reconsider their lives and their prejudices.

For Doueiri, “The Insult” wasn’t autobiographical, but he said the film is an “accumulation” of everything in his life, of how growing up amid the Lebanese Civil War and in a political household shaped his point of view and his biases about other cultures. Prior to meeting his wife and working on “The Insult” with her (which at the time he said was like marrying someone from “the enemy camp”), he never considered that his rivals also had a story to tell.

“There’s always a misunderstanding of your supposed enemy. I didn’t believe growing up that Joelle’s side, the Christian side, had any narrative. I didn’t believe growing up that they even had a point of view,” Doueiri said. “When you sit down with your supposed enemy and you hear what they say, you start having empathy. Just when you sit down face to face, some of these prejudices start to fade away. It takes time, but it works.”

Despite the turbulent setting of the film and its heavy political undercurrents, Doueiri drew inspiration from American films as far reaching as Michael Mann’s “The Insider” and Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men.” And his goal was to make a film in which the drama comes first.

“Believe me, we did not say we want to write a movie because we had a message to send. Otherwise it would look contrived,” Doueiri said. “We sat down because we believe we had a story about two characters, one who wants justice, and one who does not believe in justice, and they clash. And slowly, slowly we start uncovering why and why and why.”