Sense and memoryBecause it hails from Lebanon and speaks a tongue other than English, Ziad Doueiri’s West Beirut obviously will be classified as a foreign film. But I would offer the following as a more useful point of reference: From Being John Malkovich to The Blair Witch Project and beyond, the past year has been unusually rich for innovative, quirkily original debut films. If you want to catch one of the best of this refreshing lot, be sure to see West Beirut, whose director is, in some ways, not foreign at all.
Doueiri was born in Beirut in 1963 and lived there until he was 20, when he moved to the United States 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 semiautobiographical 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 so, think again: Doueiri’s real inspiration seems to come to from the capital of savoir faire.
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 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, of course, 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 counteranthem 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, Gemayal, 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, multiethnic, multifaith cosmopolitanism.
For Tarek’s runty, loud-mouthed 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, hand-held 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 about 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 loud-mouthed 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-act structure, a “beat” every so many pages, and so on. 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 Hamze 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 non-actors 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 be 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 press kit 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 recently, “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.