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DFI Film Review: West Beyrouth (1998)

Jul 10, 2011

Written by Reem Saleh, New Media, DFI

Film: West Beyrouth
Year: 1998
Director: Ziad Doueiri
Stars: Rami Doueiri, Mohamad Chamas, Rola Al Amin
Genre: Art House and International, Drama

In 1975, when the war in Lebanon broke out, Beirut got divided into a Muslim West and a Christian East. This film reflects the point of view of a group of teenagers from West Beirut amidst the beginning of a civil war.

From the balcony of his school, Tarek (Rami Doueiri) witnessed the massacre of 31 people in a bus. Following this incident, Tarek and his best friend Omar (Mohamad Chamas) team up with their new Christian neighbour May (Rola Al Amin) to explore their new reality through surrounding events. The schools are shut because of the war: the same war that has brought them excitement, new possibilities and above all, a lot of spare time for some fun and mischief. Meanwhile, tension is rising between Tarek’s parents; his father is being obstinate about staying in an unstable Lebanon, while his terrified mother is eager to leave the country. But as with any war, tragedy is unavoidable.

The Director, Ziad Doueiri, used the title of the film in both French and English. This is obviously an undertone of the cross-cultural, tri-lingual society that Lebanon represents. But it doesn’t stop with the title – it continues into the beginning of the film, when troublemaker Tarek sings the Lebanese anthem through a megaphone while his peers are forced to sing the French national anthem, “la Marseillaise”, prior to attending class. It is a statement about the Lebanese identity crisis, which gets clearer through a dialogue between Tarek and his angry teacher, who tells him – in French – that his behaviour is disrespectful to the country that has brought him peace and civilisation. Tarek continues to show a lucid anger towards France when he refuses to travel there for a summer camp offered by his father, saying: “I am in France every day!”

The film is a semi-autobiography evolving around a loving family with a serious concern about survival. The father, Riad (Joseph Bu Nassar) doesn’t want to admit the threats the country is drowning in. He is trying to convince his family that things will soon settle, as is always the case in Lebanon. As he notices the soldiers spreading, however, the affirmation of worrying circumstances is unavoidable. The mother (Carmen Lebbos) sees fleeing as a vital solution, as she is anxious about the fate of the family.

Tarek is not worried about these grown up details. He wants to enjoy the closing of the school. To his luck, the beautiful May has just moved into their building. The normal peer strain takes place, as Omar displeases this new intruder. Soon, however, tensions are dismantled and a wonderful trio is formed, ready for their adventures in Beirut.

Doueiri manages to accurately portray meticulous details that could only be described by someone who lived the mood of civil war in west Beirut. Life was as he witnessed it; surviving through the warmth of the people, regardless of the militias roaming the streets with their artilleries.

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West Beyrouth Trailer

إعلان فيلم بيروت الغربية

Inspired by those memories, Doueiri shaped stories, such as the annoying neighbour who screams at a crowing rooster every morning, or who shifts her inevitable anger towards the soldiers. Liliane Nemri, who represents this vulgar woman next door, is both entertaining and irritating, beautifully portraying this role.

In comparison, we are shown the tenderness of Hassan the baker (Mahmoud Mabsout), who is trying hard to distribute bread fairly now that he has limited quantities of flower. He bravely stands against a militiaman trying to take all the available bread; a young armed guy who is nothing but a familiar face from the area, turned into a gangster.

There’s no political statement in this film and that’s what gives it a more intimate approach. War is nothing but an unavoidable context for this period of time. You can’t talk of 1975 in Lebanon without including the details of fighting to get bread, or hiding from bombs in a shelter.

It is a rather simple story from the heart of a person who wants to eternalise precious memories. He turned it into a narrative of daring kids in an adventure regardless of the threats and the unpredictability of this war. These young men want to develop their super 8 films, and are obsessed about getting to Oum Waleed’s famous brothel in east Beirut, even if it means risking their lives crossing from west to east, while snipers await, for a little adventure. Yes, war is dangerous but these hot-blooded teens know how to make it amusing.

Played by Ziad Doueiri’s brother Rami, the character of Tarek would probably suggest the director’s persona. It is also important to note that Mohamad Shamas, who plays Omar, is actually a street kid who was in the right time at the right place, and got the opportunity to play a main role in the film. You can see it in his powerful acting, which genuinely transmits the language and behaviour of street kids.

This brings us to one of the film’s standpoints: dialogue. The film is famous for its realistic conversations when compared to a period where Lebanese films showed nothing but a polished version of reality. He smartly introduced the Lebanese slang to an international audience, including the war vocabulary that became part of every kid growing up in the civil war.

As a Lebanese watching the film, I must say that it did bring back a lot of bitter nostalgia. Doueiri took us back to a war that never left the memory of its citizens. For the non-Lebanese, it is a wonderful journey into the heart of a beautiful city. It is a different perspective; one you didn’t get the chance to see in the news covering the war.

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Ziad Doueiri Portrait

زياد دويري

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