International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Film
It is Beirut, 1975. Tarek, Omar, and May are teenagers roaming the streets,
listening to pop music and making super 8 films.
Direction and Screenplay: Ziad Doueiri
Cast: Rami Doueiri, Mohamad Chamas, Rola Al Amin, Carmen Lebbos,
Joseph Bou-Nassar, Liliane Nemri, Leila Karam, Mahmoud Mabsout
Language: Arabic, with English subtitles
"May, tell me, what do you think of Beirut?"
O: "Very Crazy"
10 years after its
release, West Beirut remains the freshest and most poignant war
film that I've seen. Gripping performances combine with fluid camerawork
and stirring music to create a very real experience; yet somehow the
movie is nothing short of magical. Never has a movie better characterized
the Arab mindset and sense of humor; through all the madness of war
the protagonists do not lose their mischief, their joie de vivre, or
their belief in Beirut.
Doueiri borrows from his personal experiences during the Lebanese Civil
War to showcase the teenage Tarek's emotional metamorphosis as the war
draws on; from exuberance about freedom from school to the angst-ridden
delights of first love to an all-encompassing sense of grief for the
destruction of his city. Doueiri's love for Beirut resonates throughout;
in the opening sequence Tarek drowns out the French national anthem
by singing the Lebanese one through a megaphone to his adoring classmates.
Simple visuals such as the bike ride to Zeytuni are stunning; I felt
a rush of emotion and nostalgia as Tarek, Omar and May sped across Beirut's
boulevards to develop Omar's Super-8 film. If this scene was so powerful
to a non-Lebanese such as me, I can only enviously imagine what it would
mean to a paisan.
Colorful characters abound throughout, adding the belly-laughter and
roguery essential to keep a war movie honest. Two women in particular
deserve special mention. The first, the old harridan who hides her pain
and disappointment at being shunned by her husband by being the nightmare
of the neighbourhood; she churns out some of the most creative abuses
I have ever heard ("Meet your maker and perfume your mouth before
you talk about the South"). Arabic speakers will be thrilled- God,
hellfire, mothers, sisters and carnage are invoked in equal measure.
Umm Walid, the madam of the brothel is the other, loud-mouthed and arrogant,
with a huge frame and a heart to match. She proclaims that her brothel
is the only place where the divisions brought about by the war matter
not ( At Umm Walid's, it is Beirut, period!). Sadly, time will prove
Technical finesse and theatricality aside, West Beirut is primarily
about relationships. Ziad, the husband, whose love of the land overrides
his rationality, has to deal with his beautiful wife Hala's insistence
that Beirut can no longer be home. You get a sense that their love will
prevail through all, but the depiction of the challenges that they face
as a couple is handled with panache. Hala leaves with Tarek after a
heated argument with Ziad, but minutes later when she crashes the car
on the way out, Ziad is there to welcome her back with a smile and hug
. At the climax they share a rare cigarette and at her insistence, he
strums the oud, the traditional Arab guitar. The father/son relationship
is also evocative; Ziad and Tarek are always playful, fencing
and mock-fighting while discussing profound topics such as Lebanese
identity and their future. However, the standout relationship is the
one between Tarek and his chum Omar, an explosive yet caring imp. They
are mischievous, omni-horny boys-grinning, cigarettes lit, American
music blasting, exaggerated, flowery language, grandeur, public announcements,
calls out to the prophet, gestural touching of the heart, head-slapping
and at the core of it all, a deep mutual affection.
Omar is portrayed by the irresistible Mohammed Chamas, whom Doueiri
found in an orphanage, and he steals the show. Impulsive, foul-mouthed
and street-smart, Omar initially resents May due to his fear that she
will take Tarek away from him. Eventually though, they become an inseparable
trio, with the battlefields of Beirut serving as the background for
their compelling friendship.
Cross-cultural influences are felt throughout the movie. From the boys'
choice of phrases ("Finito, Capish?, You drive like Steve McQueen!")
to the music they choose to chill to (George McRae's "Rock your
Baby"), it all conveys Beirut's cosmopolitan vibe. And yet the
city's soul is Arab, a point Doueiri repeatedly drives home. The magnanimity
of Mo'alim Hassan, the smart-aleck humor of a man whose car has just
been totaled , the handsy but completely heterosexual mischief between
Tarek and Omar, it all serves to help us understand the Arab spirit.
It's a spirit that frustrates and enthralls, that cries and chuckles,
and in the case of West Beirut, makes for a mesmerizing movie.
© Hiten Samtani March 2009
hitsamty at gmail.com
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