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Why Did Lebanon Detain an Award-Winning Lebanese Director?

Ziad Doueiri was questioned this week for filming a movie in Israel -- five years ago.

Words: Kaveh Waddell
Pictures: From Ziad Doueiri's The Insult

It wasn’t exactly a hero’s welcome. A week after his newest film, “The Insult,” won a major prize at the Venice International Film Festival, the Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri found himself in front of a military tribunal in his native country, where he was traveling to attend his film’s premiere.

When he arrived in Beirut earlier this week, Doueiri was detained for about an hour and a half at the airport, and his French and Lebanese passports were confiscated, the Associated Press reported. He was let go, on condition that he appear in front of a military court the following day. The court questioned Doueiri for three hours before releasing him without charges and returning his travel documents, his lawyer told the AP.

Doueiri had been accused of visiting Israel without proper authorization. Since 1955, it’s been illegal for Lebanese nationals to visit or do business in Israel — but parts of Doueiri’s last movie, “The Attack,” were filmed in Tel Aviv.

Doueiri knew the risks when he traveled to Israel for filming. “From the time that you are a sperm, you know about those laws,” he told the New York Times after “The Attack” came out in 2012. So before traveling to Tel Aviv, he sent a formal request to the Lebanese government for permission to film in Israel, but he says he never heard back. Eventually, Beirut said it would allow the film to be released in Lebanon — and even Hezbollah, a hard-line Shi’a paramilitary group that participates in the Lebanese government, gave the project an informal green light. But the Arab world soured on “The Attack” once it was actually released. Lebanon ended up banning it despite its earlier promise, as did most other Arab countries, because of its ties to Israel.

All this was five years ago. Doueiri, who lives in Paris, has visited Lebanon multiple times since “The Attack” was banned. Unlike that film, “The Insult” is Lebanese through and through. A tense courtroom drama that shines a light on uncomfortable political dynamics, it was met with positive reviews in Lebanon.

So why did Doueiri tangle with the Lebanese government again this week? The answer requires digging through Lebanon’s knotted internal politics.

The leadup to this week’s premier of “The Insult” was full of mixed messages. Trouble began brewing even before he arrived: Some conservative writers in the local press bashed Doueiri, calling him a criminal and a traitor for his ties to Israel. But the day before Doueiri arrived in Beirut, he posted on Instagram that the Lebanese Ministry of Culture chose the film to represent the country in the 2018 Oscars. On the day Doueiri was detained, the Lebanese minister of culture tweeted in Arabic: “Ziad Doueiri is a great Lebanese director who is honored around the world. He must be respected and honored. #Lebanon” (That tweet has has since been deleted.)

“Lebanon is a complicated place,” Doueiri told Variety this week. “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.”

Somebody looking to make a point likely filed a formal complaint against him with government, said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “Usually, it is Hezbollah and leftist groups in Lebanon that make issues about visits to Israel, which they label as acts of normalization with an enemy state,” he said. The fact that the military court threw out his charges in a few short hours is proof that Doueiri got caught up in internal bickering, said Khashan. “This confirms the claim that the case against him was politically driven and amounted to nothing more than making noise.”

Kaveh Waddell


Kaveh Waddell is an independent journalist based in Beirut. Previously, he covered surveillance and digital privacy as an associate editor at The Atlantic in Washington, D.C.


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