Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture

‘The Insult’ and the spirit of reconciliation

31 May 2019 - by Stephen Pickard

The Insult, a Lebanese drama directed by Ziad Doueiri and nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2018 Oscars, is a thrilling, thoughtful and complex story. In National Reconciliation Week the ACC&C screened The Insult. There are occasions when it is important for our own desires and actions for reconciliation learn from other contexts and countries. Following the film two panellists, Genevieve Jacobs (co-chair of ACT Reconciliation Council and Board member of the ACC&C) and Muhammed Asku (Executive Director, Bluestar Intercultural Centre in Canberra) offered their responses and reflections on the film to an appreciative audience.

One film reviewer (Meniei Ma) wrote: IT WAS never just about a gutter pipe.

When Tony Hanna finds a worker fixing his illegal gutter, he smashes it in anger. That worker, Yasser Abdallah Salameh returns the violent action with terse words, that insult Tony. If only it ended there. Instead, that one exchange takes on a life of its own, escalating into a full-blown quarrel before eventually inciting citywide riots. It’s centred on these two men but it’s about much more than them as it delves into the almost impossible context of their lives — of history, of past trauma, of the difficulty of reconciliation after civil war, and of prejudice. Tony is a Lebanese Christian and a member of the Christian Party. When he recognises Yasser as a Palestinian Muslim refugee, it gets his hackles up. He’s full of rage over what he sees as an encroachment on his home, he listens to anti-Palestinian propaganda and it’s only later in the film when you realise the extent of why he is the way he is, why he is unable to, as his wife puts it, ‘turn the page’

The story shows how a somewhat minor local matter becomes the catalyst for a major national event and unusual courtroom drama. And underlying this is what has been identified as a desperate  cry for empathy. It seems that this can only emerge as people are ‘grounded in truth and walk together with courage’, the theme for 2019 National Reconciliation Week. The film offers a few glimpses of the cost of such a journey.

The word ‘insult’ from the mid 16th century as a verb in the sense of ‘exalt, act arrogantly’ comes from the Latin ‘insultare’, ‘to jump, leap or trample upon’ (‘in’- on +saltare from salire ‘to leap’). In the 17th century French (insulte) it denotes an attack. In contemporary usage we are familiar with the phrase ‘to add insult to injury’ and it is linked to a range of other words e.g.: affront, disrespect, offend, outrage, slap, slight, wound.

As I was pondering this I recalled that the language of ‘ insult’ appeared in Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) wherein it is unlawful for someone to do an act that is reasonably likely to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ someone because of their race or ethnicity. Section 18D of this same Act contains exemptions which protect freedom of speech. But as we know Section 18C has been a matter of significant controversy in Australia with a number of celebrated cases in recent years. To insult is not a matter that is to be treated lightly. It concerns fundamental human dignity and worth.

For these reasons The Insult, set in Beirut, touches Australian shores and offers a window into our own struggles with the challenge and ethical and moral imperatives for reconciliation with the First Peoples of this country. It is a matter that goes back to the origins of the vision of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture.

I am struck with the synchronicities between National Reconciliation Week (27 May-3 June), the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Sunday 2 June) which we celebrate at the Centre, and the season of Pentecost which begins Sunday 9 June. This is the season for reconciliation but not by our own achievements alone; not by our might and fine resolutions that too often fall to the dust. Rather the spirit of reconciliation comes from the Spirit of God who calls all things, all people, into one new humanity upon a renewed planet. This is big picture reconciliation but it only takes place in the small things, the everyday relationships and it grows form there. May this Pentecost e bulletin lead you deeper into the work of the Spirit of Jesus that raises all things to their true life in God and with one another.