(director/writer: Ziad Doueiri; cinematographer: Ricardo Jacques Gale; editor: Dominique Marcombe; cast: Rami Doueiri (Tarek), Mohamad Chamas (Omar), Rola Al Amin (May), Carmen Lebbos (Hala), Joseph Bou Nassar (Riad), Liliane Nemry (Neighbor), Leila Karam (Oum Walid), Mahmoud Mabsout (Baker), Fadi Abou Khalil (Papa Snake); Runtime: 105; A Cowboy Booking; 1998)

“Yes. A war zone can be fun for restless teens with hot blood and a passion for mischief.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Yes. A war zone can be fun for restless teens with hot blood and a passion for mischief. Ziad Doueiri’s semi-autobiographical film is about his growing up as a teenager in the 1970s in the middle of the civil war that rocked Beirut. The strongest message I received came from his irreverent look at what he did during the war years. It was filmed by someone who knows the mood of that critical time, the real dangers that were there, the music that was played, and the tensions that gripped the city.

In this shoestring budgeted indie, Doueiri does a nice job of detailing how his Muslim community of West Beirut reacted to all the violence; and, how he and his friends and his bourgeois parents endured. His intellectual father Riad (Joseph Bou Nassar) being the eternal optimist and his lawyer mother Hala (Carmen Lebbos) being constantly panicked by the events. The film shows how through all the turmoil his parents showed much affection to their only child, as he was doted upon by both. This is a heartfelt film about his coming-of-age during that strife. The 36-year-old filmmaker studied at UCLA and was the cameraman for Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs.

The 15-year-old protagonist, Tarek (Rami Doueiri, nonprofessional actor and the director’s brother), is the school joker. In the opening scene he stops the singing of the “Marseillaise” at his French-speaking high-school by climbing above the students gathered in the school yard and using a megaphone to sing the Lebanese national anthem. When he is removed from class because of his insolence, he witnesses the massacre of a busload of 31 Muslims by masked terrorists–it’s April 13, 1975, the start of the war between Muslims and Christians that leaves Beirut divided into Christian East Beirut and Muslim West Beirut. It is a chaotic war that is to last for 14 years, leaving the city in ruin. But when Tarek witnessed the attack, he wasn’t sure who the attackers were and why they were there.

Tarek’s father thinks this war will be like the others he has lived through, and the Americans will force a negotiation and it will be settled very quickly. His wife is confused about what is happening and wishes to flee the city. But, as Riad says, this is our home, there is no other place I would feel comfortable fitting in. Tarek and his best friend, the short but peppy Omar (Mohamad Chamas, a Beirut street kid and thief), don’t see things the way the adults do. They are happy that their school, in Christian East Beirut, is closed to them and they can horse around in the street and spend their time with the hobby they both have a passion for, Super-8 filmmaking.

Tarek becomes infatuated with May (Rola Al Amin), the pretty Catholic refugee girl from his school who wears a cross and lives in Muslim West Beirut. They become a trio though Omar is, at first, displeased with her and calls her “the Virgin Mary.”

The film is not plot oriented. It relies on a bunch of episodic incidents to take place before Tarek gets it through his clownish skull and smirking face that this city has changed and won’t be the same again. His adventures are driven by his sexual curiosity, but he will soon realize it’s not that easy to be so carefree anymore. One character angrily tells him when he is aimlessly running through the dangerous streets, “What planet are you from?” When they go to develop film in a neighborhood where they have to cross the border to the East, there is a sense of imminent danger that the trio never realized before. They go to a brothel where safe passage means you have to use women’s underwear as a white flag to avoid being shot at by snipers. Here, they meet the legendary madam Oum Walid (Leila Karam). She tells them for certain that Beirut has changed, and it finally sinks in that Beirut is no longer the cosmopolitan Mediterranean city it once was.

We get a feel for what the director lived through, as the friendly Tarek is shown relating to his neighbors. He has a wonderful relationship with the neighborhood baker (Mahmoud Mabsout); a comical relationship with his complaining neighbor (Liliane Nemry), who curses out those she doesn’t like with shouts of: “May Allah spread pain all over you;” and, she tells Tarek’s mother: “Your son is a blood clot in my vein.” There’s, also, the neighborhood bully, Papa Snake (Khalil), who is disliked by Tarek for intimidating the baker to give him flour for protection.

The director also presents us with a flavor of the slang language used by the locals, with expressions such as: “You’re shish-kabobing me on a small flame;” or “You drive like Steve McQueen;” and, about a buxom woman, Omar says: “What a piece of lamb!”

The film was good at giving us a realistic look at how one family looked at those troubled times, rather than for having anything political to say. We are not getting a history lesson here, but a grown man’s look back at a period of eight years of his youthful life. The film did this in a rather ordinary way, so that there is nothing deeper to dig out of Ziad Doueiri’s story. Rami Doueiri was a lively teenager. Mohamad Chamas was equally feisty as his ‘main man.’ It seemed to be a story that the director had to tell, and he shared what he saw with an audience that more than likely only followed the long civil war in the news stories and had no idea how it looked first-hand. This was a film that had no pretenses; it just told the story it knew.

West Beirut Poster

REVIEWED ON 5/25/2001 GRADE: B    https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/