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A Lebanese director's new film opens old wounds

Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

BEIRUT -- In movie theaters in Lebanon, "The Insult" is preceded by a terse disclaimer: The views in the film do not represent those of the Lebanese government.

Yet that official unease didn't stop the Lebanese ministry of culture from choosing "The Insult" as the country's entry for this year's Academy Awards, and last month it was named one of the five finalists in the foreign language category.

The government's ambivalence speaks to both Lebanon's on-again, off-again love affair with the film's director, Ziad Doueiri, and the difficult relationship many Lebanese still have with the subject matter: the country's long civil war.

The conflict, not unlike the one now raging next door in Syria in its brutality, dragged on from 1975 to 1990. It embroiled the country's 18 religious sects and regional and international governments, and killed up to 150,000.

The war's legacy remains. Nobody forgets that some politicians were once warlords. Speaking with the "wrong" accent in some areas of the country can still elicit disdain. And officials often invoke the war to explain away Lebanon's infrastructure failures, including the lack of round-the-clock electricity for most residents.

Nestled among the glitzy cement-and-glass skyscrapers in the capital, Beirut, some buildings still bear the pockmarks and jagged tears of bullets and shells.

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But the war's history is absent from textbooks, and there has yet to be a full reckoning of its horrors in the Lebanese collective memory, with more than 10,000 people still unaccounted for and presumed dead.

"History books stop at 1975 because none of the political parties agree on the other one's narrative. There has not been a common denominator unifying the narrative of the war," Doueiri said. "The issues have never been resolved in Lebanon's psyche."

In "The Insult," a simple argument in modern-day Beirut about a leaking water pipe escalates into a courtroom drama, with Tony, a right-wing Lebanese Christian, pitted against Yasser, a Palestinian who, despite living for decades in Beirut, is still viewed as an interloper.

On the protagonists' shoulders are not mere issues of plumbing but the full weight of the decades-old civil war.

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