Director: Ziad Doueiri
Cast: Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Camille Salameh
Runtime: 1 hr 52 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Coarse Language)
Opening Day: 14 January 2019
Presented by the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, and supported by the Singapore Film Society
Synopsis: In today’s Beirut, an insult blown out of proportion finds Toni, a Lebanese Christian, and Yasser, a Palestinian refugee, in court. From secret wounds to traumatic revelations, the media circus surrounding the case puts Lebanon through a social explosion, forcing Toni and Yasser to reconsider their lives and prejudices. Winner of Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival 2017, and nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2018.
This reviewer will be upfront to admit that he does not know much about the Lebanese Civil War. Films like Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (2010) and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008) have given viewers in this part of the world a glimpse into that period not too long ago. The multifaceted unrest which lasted from 1975 to 1990 resulted in an estimated 120,000 deaths. There was also an exodus of almost one million people from Lebanon.
As you’d expect, this is a sombre topic which can bring back many unpleasant memories. And as the cinematic form would have it, there are countless stories to be told.
In this film directed by Ziad Doueiri and co written by Doueiri and Joelle Touma, a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee face off in court over a civilian dispute in Beirut, the capital and largest city of Lebanon. The two men had gotten into a verbal and physical clash, and their tempers have brought them to the courtroom for a legal showdown. Things get intense in the divided Lebanonwith the media coverage, and the two protagonists are forced to reevaluate their values and beliefs.
On the surface, this film is a courtroom drama. But as any viewer can easily tell, the filmmakers are exploring the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War. There are biases, stereotypes, ugly feelings and all things hurtful. These are made possible with the utterance of a few words. Yes, malicious words have the power to wound, just like kind words have the ability to comfort.
Not that you don’t already know this, but the film takes an honest look at the relationship between the Lebanese Christians and Palestinians are refugees in Lebanon but also participated in wartime massacre. The 112 minute movie doesn’t take sides, and it also doesn’t leave much to your imagination. Words and blows are exchanged, and you see the points of view from both sides. As one character puts it aptly: the war may be over, but it is still going on in the people’s minds.
Besides the heartrending plot (we are sure there are many more stories which can be translated to screenplays), the film also works because of the actors’ powerful performances. Adel Karam portrays the hot headed Lebanese Christian, while Kamel El Basha takes on the role of the Palestinian who finds himself embroiled in legal trouble. For his restrained and emotionally tugging role, the latter was recognised with the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 74th Venice International Film Festival. The film was also Lebanon’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards. It was nominated but the prize went to Chile’s A Fantastic Woman.
Elsewhere, Camille Salameh gets to put up a showy performance as an arrogant lawyer, while the more subdued Diamand Bou Abboud plays her daughter. Most of these actors are unfamiliar in this part of the world, which allows you to better focus on their acting.
While we know it is the right thing to learn from history’s mistakes, we often allow emotions to get the better of us. No matter which part of the world we are from, this is a universal human nature. Hopefully, with more understanding and grace, we can strive towards a more harmonious community.
(This is not just a courtroom drama - it is a well-acted film that uses the backdrop of Middle Eastern politics to tell a relatable human story)
Review by John Li at the Middle East Film Festival 2019