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OPINION / Arts & Culture

The Oscar-nominated 'Good Arab' Ziad Doueiri

Film director Ziad Doueiri has adopted a convenient narrative that will probably secure his success in the West.

by Halim Shebaya

On January 23, French-Lebanese film director Ziad Doueiri's latest film "The Insult" became the first Lebanese film to be nominated for an Oscar. The motion picture, which received a nomination in the foreign language film category, caused controversy in Lebanon and was boycotted in cities across Palestine and other Arab states.

"The Insult" tells the story of a right-wing Lebanese Christian who gets into a verbal dispute with a Palestinian refugee. The confrontation eventually escalates into a courtroom drama and inflames tensions across the country.

The film is partially based on a real incident. According to Doueiri, he once accidentally splashed some water on a Palestinian neighbour while watering his plants. When the neighbour protested, Doueiri told him "You know, [former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon should have wiped you all out."

He says he later apologised and the incident gave him the idea for the film.

The film deals (albeit superficially) with themes related to the civil war that are important to be dealt with, especially in the context of Lebanon's "silence" or "collective amnesia" when it comes to that period of its recent history.

But the main reason behind the controversy is not this touchy subject. It is, rather, Doueiri's decision to shoot parts of his 2012 film "The Attack" in Israel, in violation of the Lebanese law which forbids citizens from travelling to Israel.

Supporters of the Palestinian struggle view this move as an overt encouragement of the normalisation of Israeli occupation. When the film was banned by Lebanese authorities, Doueiri defended his choice "without any regret or apology", angering his critics further.

Since then, he's indulged in playing the victim and vehemently attacked the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement.

BDS is the 'ultimate bad'

In an interview for the online publication Forward, Doueiri openly talked about his anti-BDS stance.

Referring to himself in the third person, he said that "Ziad is not gonna be the peacemaker, the peaceful nice guy."

He also said he wants his next film to be about "the ultimate good and the ultimate bad" because he now thinks that "there is black and white after all".

So what is the ultimate bad?

It is the BDS movement. Doueiri made it clear: "I want to portray people like the BDS in a very negative light ... That's it. I think I have an agenda against them, and I'm gonna probably do it in my next film."

When asked about Israel, Doueiri was honest: "Today I see Israel as a detail; it's not an issue." 

Thus, the film director consciously shifts the narrative from Israel's occupation and its repressive and destabilising effect in the region to a singular focus on the "Arab house" - i.e. the Arabs only are at fault.

By doing so, he inevitably steps into the persona of the "Good Arab" and avoids being portrayed as what Jack Shaheen describes as "Reel Bad Arab": "the ultimate outsider, the other, who doesn't pray to the same God, and who can be made to be less human".

Who is the 'Good Arab'?

The "Good Arab" understands dominant political narratives and makes sure he sounds "moderate", lest he is accused of being an "extremist". 

Zionists have succeeded in making people hesitant and cautious when it comes to criticism of Israel, despite increased awareness about the plight of the Palestinian people in Europe and the US.

In this light, the "Good Arab" avoids the headache involved in criticising Israel and makes sure his words are not, in any way, shape or form, prone to interpretation as a sign of non-conformism.

Furthermore, the "Good Arab" does not highlight uncomfortable truths about Israel. The "Good Arab" uses the dire state of affairs in the Arab world as an excuse to consider Israel a mere "detail" and not a real "issue".

It is as if Palestinians need a certificate of good conduct "on the international stage" in order to be seen as normal, ordinary humans.

 

To be sure, no one in their right mind would challenge Doueiri's claim that the "Arab house" is in need of cleaning, as he put it in his interview for Forward. But focusing inwards on corruption, inequalities, poverty, extremism, oppressive regimes, human rights violations, etc, does not mean that solidarity with Palestine has to be excluded. 

But Doueiri goes further than just being a "Good Arab". He self-congratulates for trying to present others as "Good Arabs" as well. He wants Palestinians to be grateful because "The film puts Palestinians on a good world stage. It shows they have artists [lead actor Kamel El-Basha] who can go overseas and excel, win a big award. It proves to the world that Palestinians are educated, cultured, open-minded and that they deserve peace."

It is as if Palestinians need a certificate of good conduct "on the international stage" in order to be seen as normal, ordinary humans. And, apparently, they need someone like Doueiri to help them get that nod of approval.

All the director wanted was some gratitude for what he did. Instead, BDS criticised him. So Doueiri was "annoyed".

If only Palestinians and the BDS movement knew that all they needed was to rally around Doueiri's film and the whole world would know that they "deserve" peace.

But they are "Bad Arabs" who do not know what is best for them.

The 'death of guilt'

I wouldn't have normally paid any attention to Doueiri's comments, especially since he relishes in playing the victim. But these aren't "normal times" when it comes to Palestine, Jerusalem, and the grassroots, nonviolent, Palestinian-led BDS movement that is being viciously targeted by Israel. 

The most dangerous aspect of Doueiri's comments - one that he is perhaps unaware of - is that normalisation of relations with Israel (in the absence of a just peace settlement) is part and parcel of what Gideon Levy once described as the "death of guilt".

Levy was talking about an "Israeli psychological mechanism, which enables the horror to continue indefinitely, thanks to a systematic, unconscious omission of guilt". He claims "guilt died" for the indifferent majority in Israel.

The reason Doueiri's comments are dangerous is precisely because guilt should not "die" among Arabs. 

Israel wants a "leave of absence" from the occupation, a "time-out".

But the BDS movement and the Arabs who support it are here to make sure that Israel doesn't get this time-out. The movement stands as a constant reminder to the world of what caused the conflict in the first place: colonialisation, military occupation, apartheid, illegal settlements built on stolen Palestinian land, Palestinian prisoners (including children) and daily human rights violations.

In these difficult times, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Perhaps that's what happened with Doueiri.

But there are others, like Amani al-Khatahtbeh, founder of an online magazine, who didn't. Unlike Doueiri, she does not think that this is about her, personally. In a letter addressed to Israeli actress Gal Gadot (who is Revlon's brand ambassador), she explained why she declined Revlon's Changemakers Award:

"I couldn't [accept the award] knowing that your popular support of Israeli military actions in Palestine had contributed to this disproportionate harm on women and children. To do so would have been turning a blind eye to the plight of women and girls like Ahed [Tamimi]. I'm writing this because I want to make it clear that this is not about you or me."

Perhaps some day Doueiri will understand that the issue is not about him, "him versus the BDS", or about his frustration that "The Insult" was not appreciated enough in the Arab world.

It's about something bigger.

Doueiri still has the chance not to settle for a conformist discourse that might help him win an Oscar but that also hurts the cause of a people fighting a brutal occupation. 

For what use is an Oscar if it comes at the price of justice, freedom, equality and dignity?

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 


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