West Beirut

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



Summer Hat
Trick
If
only for Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project and
M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, the summer of ’99 has ended
up a noteworthy time for excitingly offbeat and inventive work from young filmmakers.
Now comes Ziad Doueiri’s West Beirut, which is just as refreshing and quirkily
original as the films just named but risks being typed as some kind of ponderous
foreign film about the bloody Middle East. Don’t make that mistake. Doueri’s
movie is an exhilaratingly accomplished piece of cinema, first of all; along
with Blair Witch, it deserves recognition as the most impressive debut film
of the year to date.



Doueiri was born in Beirut
in 1963 and lived there until he was 20, when he moved to the U.S. and studied
film in San Diego and at UCLA. He worked as a camera operator/assistant on all
three of Quentin Tarantino’s features as well as From Dusk till Dawn
and Four Rooms. Knowing that, you might expect his semi-autobiographical
account of growing up in a war zone to be some sort of Pulp Fiction-in-Lebanon,
with Uzis in place of pump-action shotguns and hash instead of heroin. If that’s
the kind of thing you’re up for, you’d better seek out another current
film about a Mediterranean civil war, Srdjan Dragojevic’s The Wounds,
which brings Tarantino-style ultraviolence and amorality to the former Yugoslavia.


Doueiri is up to something
much different. At a time when the French seem to have lost touch with many
of the virtues traditionally associated with their cinema, West Beirut
might well be hailed as the best recent French movie not made by a French
auteur (most of the funding behind the movie was French, however, as I assume
Doueiri’s early education was). Its quiet lyricism, episodic narrative
and intelligent humanism recall the rich vein of Gallic moviemaking that stretches
from Truffaut’s The 400 Blows to Techine’s Wild Reeds.
While it may not quite equal either of those defining masterpieces, Doueiri’s
film merits praise for doing distinctive, memorable work in the same valuable
tradition.


Why have the French been
so drawn to coming-of-age films, especially the autobiographical variety? You
can credit the inherent drama that attends adolescence, to be sure, as well
as the purely sensual appeal of people at that age. But there’s also the
fact that movies based on real life, and especially life at its most mercurial
phase, have a natural tendency to free the filmmaker from many of the strictures
and imposed formal patterns that come with genres. Instead of harnessing all
satisfactions to the mechanics of plot, they allow for a more free-form, impressionistic
attention to such evanescent attractions as light and color, the moods of places
and people and the subjective pull of memory and reflection. In short, such
films can be at once more personal and more formally adventurous than movies
that toe the line of genre convention.


West Beirut has this
kind of quicksilver appeal. You can say that it offers a perceptive take on
the rebellious, inquisitive urges of teenagers; or that it captures some of
the edgy fascinations of life under siege; or that it affords a unique, compellingly
personal view of one flashpoint in the flammable Middle East. But the film’s
real accomplishment doesn’t lie in any–or all–of these particular
virtues, I think. It lies somewhere between them: in a realm composed
of Doueiri’s sharp film sense and youthful memories.


The story opens, in the
Beirut of 1975, at a French school where the film’s teenage protagonist,
Tarek (Rami Doueiri), disrupts morning assembly by mischievously bellowing a
counter-anthem to the "Marseillaise," provoking his fellow students
to giggle and join in. Sent into the hall as punishment, he glances out a window
and sees a group of men with automatic weapons, their faces hidden by keffiyehs,
attack a city bus commando-style, shooting out the front windows and gunning
down passengers as they emerge. From one boy’s perspective, this is the
beginning of a civil war that will last 17 years, and that has one immediate
consequence–school is out.


West Beirut doesn’t
attempt to explain or offer a political overview of the complex and devastating
conflict that wracked Lebanon from the mid-70s till the early 90s. We see occasional
news flashes of figures like Arafat, Gemayel, Begin and Assad, but mostly the
film sticks to the very localized and necessarily self-involved viewpoint of
Tarek. The morning after the bus incident, when his parents attempt to deliver
him to school, their car is stopped by armed men who tell them that Beirut is
now divided: Muslims in the west, Christians in the east. It’s a cruel
fate for a city long known for its tolerant, multi-ethnic, multi-faith cosmopolitanism.


For Tarek’s runty,
loudmouthed best friend Omar (Mohamad Chamas), though, the division has an unexpected
cruelty. Omar owns a Super-8 camera that he and Tarek use for various purposes,
especially to film surreptitious glimpses of attractive women (the boys’
hormones are in full effect). But alas, the shop that supplies the film and
developing is in the danger zone. Soon that familiar yellow and red Kodak logo
becomes as tantalizingly remote as a mirage.


Doueiri’s use of Super-8,
as both a secondary dramatic and formal device, typifies many things about
West Beirut
. It’s not stunningly original per se; you’ve seen
similar tropes in other films. But the way he employs it is somehow just right,
assured yet unpretentious. The occasional snippets of grainy, handheld black-and-white
footage bring back the mood of a time when teenagers fetishized filmed images.
They also connect us visually with the viewpoints of the two boys, which is
important because ultimately the movie is about not Beirut’s urban civil
war, but how it appeared to kids like these.


The narrative shares with
us one volatile, forbidden secret: War is fun. At least it is to teenagers,
as long as no one close to them gets hurt. School is closed; a kind of mild
and still-distant chaos provides glorious relief from stifling routines. Boredom,
the adolescent’s fiercest enemy, is miraculously and continually routed.
Adults, those bothersome, intrusive monitors, remain distracted by other worries.
What could be better? One is free to wander.


Restless yet alert, the
film wanders with Tarek, Omar and May (Rola Al Amin), a smart, doe-eyed Christian
girl they befriend and on whom both may have crushes. (The boys are circa 14
years old; crushes are still vague if powerful things.) The city, or at least
the western part of it, becomes their playground. And we gradually come to notice
the changes that infiltrate their lives. Doueiri has a wonderfully precise,
economical way of registering the small dramas of place and personality. In
a couple of Tarek’s fleeting visits to his local bazaar, we get enough
of a sense of the local characters to grasp the dark changes brought by war:
A local tough, who has set himself up as the neighborhood’s paramilitary
"protector," roughly demands 20 bags of bread from the harried, undersupplied
baker, who reacts with a fury that spells the end of common civility among people
who once were almost family.


Such is the real devastation
of a conflict like Beirut’s, the film suggests: not a sudden incursion
of death, but a slow erosion of the bonds between people. Yet Doueiri almost
always finds flashes of comedy amid such troubling changes. Omar, whose dad
decides that the Christian vice known as rock ’n’ roll is Satan’s
doing, wonders sardonically if Paul Anka could really be the work of the devil.
On the courtyard that Tarek’s family shares with several others, a loudmouthed
woman from the south wakes everyone up by cursing at the owner of a rooster
that has awakened her. Oddly, as war encroaches, such irritations only
grow more ruefully comic.


Quentin Tarantino may rightly
be regarded as a baneful influence on some young filmmakers, but when I interviewed
him a few years ago he persuasively inveighed against those professional screenwriting
teachers who encourage the idea that every good script must have a three- or
five-act structure, a "beat" every so many pages, etc. The only good
rule for writing, he insisted, is to forget all arbitrary rules and let your
material dictate its own. As obvious as that advice may sound to layfolk, it’s
remarkable how seldom it’s put into practice. But Doueiri has obviously
grasped it. He recounts in the film’s production notes that he started
out with roughly 100 narrative "images" in mind, then arranged them
into "a sort of montage" that was given its shape by historical chronology
rather than according to any predetermined dramatic structure.


This, admittedly, is a risky
method that in unskilled hands could lead to shambling banality. In the case
of West Beirut, though, I think it’s the key to the film’s
deepest level of attraction: its poetic immediacy and vivid, constant sense
that its story, like war or the tumults of adolescence, could veer in any direction
at any time.


The glue that holds everything
together is the strength of Doueiri’s style. This is one young director
who knows exactly where to put his camera in virtually every instance. Ricardo
Jacques Gale’s cinematography and Hamzi Nasrallah’s production design
contribute substantially to the director’s careful balancing of deliberate
visual eloquence and raw, authentic immediacy. There’s also a fine score
by Stewart Copeland (who was reared in Beirut when his dad was a CIA big). And
the film’s performances, by a mix of young nonactors and older professionals,
offer a steady stream of wonders and delights.


Doueiri has said he had
no intention of casting his younger brother Rami as Tarek, but what a loss it
would have been if he’d missed the chance. The gangly, hyperactive kid
has an expressive face that inevitably recalls Jean-Pierre Leaud in Truffaut’s
Antoine Doinel films. The only problem with the casting, the presskit amusingly
notes, emerged when Rami fell in love with the girl who plays May. She didn’t
share his infatuation and so he refused to work for a while. ("After three
years trying to raise the money for the film," Doueiri told me on the phone
last week, "I couldn’t believe everything was threatened by my brother
falling in love. But it was.")


The film also has terrific
performances by Joseph Bou Nassar and Carmen Lebbos as Tarek’s parents.
They are educated, middle-class Lebanese whose shattering world hands them a
terrible dilemma. Do they stay and risk the deaths of themselves and their loved
ones, or flee to international vagabondage in a world that stereotypes their
kind as hash peddlers and "sand niggers"?


West Beirut is the
rare film to reach American audiences in which Muslim Arabs are presented as
fully fleshed central characters. As such, it has a cultural value to match
its artistic excellence. And that may well be why its success in Europe has
outstripped many of the current products of Europe’s own, increasingly
timid cinemas: This film has a story to tell that we haven’t heard before,
faces that we’ve never seen on our screens and a passion that unites its
important subject with exceptional cinematic skills.


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