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Movies
'West Beirut'

Life during wartime: 'West Beirut' is an unusual coming-of-age story

Friday, June 23, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

As a teen-ager, all I knew about war was that I didn't want to go to Vietnam to fight in one. Filmmaker Ziad Doueiri, on the other hand, spent his adolescence living in one of the most notorious battle zones on the planet -- Beirut, the once- fashionable city that became a synonym for anarchy.

 
 
'West Beirut'


Rating: Unrated; contains violence, vulgar language and sexual references.

Players: Rami Doueiri, Mohamad Chamas.

Director: Ziad Doueiri.

Critic's call: 3 stars.

   
 

Doueiri was 12 when the Lebanese civil war erupted in 1975, resulting in the partition of the nation's capital into East and West Beirut -- the Christian and Muslim sections, respectively. It took 14 years before a peace agreement could be achieved, but Doueiri left in 1983 to study film in the United States.

After working as an assistant cameraman on several films, including all of Quentin Tarantino's features, Doueiri wrote and directed "West Beirut," a largely autobiographical movie about growing up amid bombs and bullets.

But "West Beirut," now at the Harris Theater, never becomes as forbidding as its title would suggest. Violent incidents take place, to be sure. A confrontation with a Muslim militiaman threatens to escalate into catastrophe. The stress of living in a place where all semblances of order are collapsing takes a particular toll on the parents of the young man on whom the film centers.

Yet boys will be boys, even in time of war. Tarek (Rami Doueiri, the director's younger brother) and his friend Omar (Mohamad Chamas) don't fully understand the politics and personalities behind the conflict, and they have more important things on their minds -- girls, their Super 8 movie camera, getting free meals from the friendly neighborhood baker (Mahmoud Mabsout), enjoying the fact that school is closed because of the fighting.

In other words, "West Beirut" is largely a coming-of-age movie, complete with humor and an exuberant spirit of discovery. Yet neither we nor the protagonists can ignore the effects of the war.

Omar complains because his parents are going fundamentalist on him, threatening to prohibit movies and rock music. Tarek insists on getting his film developed but the only shop that can do it is located just across the line in East Beirut.

It may as well be on the moon. So might his beautiful neighbor (Rola Al Amin) because of the cross she wears on her necklace, marking her location on the wrong side of town.

The anxiety of Tarek's mother (Carmen Lebbos) sometimes borders on hysteria as her desire to flee is thwarted by her husband (Joseph Bou Nassar), who insists on staying for reasons that seem pedantic considering that his windows are being blown out by mortar shells exploding nearby.

The movie opens with a black-and-white sequence in which one of them mugs for the camera. That establishes the low-key documentary-style tone, which Doueiri maintains by staging his scenes mostly in the streets or in the boys' homes, both of which are being riven by the conflict.

At times, the movie is too matter-of-fact. Some sequences or characters -- particularly the overweight neighbor woman who screams insults at virtually everyone she meets -- seem unnecessary. There really isn't a plot, just the growing presence of danger and fear.

But by detailing these lives, we see the increments by which those things we take for granted are slowly but surely dismantled in this war of partition.

Some have criticized "West Beirut" for keeping the boys at the same age even though it is clear that several years pass in the course of the film. But the nature of the fighting chips away at their innocence slowly. They join a march in which the crowd chants in support of someone named Kamal. Who's he, Omar asks. Never heard of him, Tarek replies. It's just fun to march in a parade and shout.

The war will catch up to them eventually -- a scene in a brothel makes Tarek finally understand the hopelessness of the conflict. Still, life goes on -- along with the killing -- in "West Beirut."



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