In April, 1975, civil war breaks out; Beirut is partitioned along a Moslem-Christian line. Tarek is in high school, making Super 8 movies with his friend, Omar. At first the war is a lark: ... See full summary »
In April, 1975, civil war breaks out; Beirut is partitioned along a Moslem-Christian line. Tarek is in high school, making Super 8 movies with his friend, Omar. At first the war is a lark: school has closed, the violence is fascinating, getting from West to East is a game. His mother wants to leave; his father refuses. Tarek spends time with May, a Christian, orphaned and living in his building. By accident, Tarek goes to an infamous brothel in the war-torn Olive Quarter, meeting its legendary madam, Oum Walid. He then takes Omar and May there using her underwear as a white flag for safe passage. Family tensions rise. As he comes of age, the war moves inexorably from adventure to tragedy. Written by
'Mohammad Chamas' who played Omar in the movie was discovered by accident. At one time while the crew was preparing the set and not having found an actor to play Omar, Mohammed was passing by and he had a fight with one of the crew members. The director noticed him and immediately asked him to play the character. After having lived in an orphanage most of his life, becoming a lead in a motion picture was an important change of pace. See more »
On 13 April 1975, while class is in session, Tarek watches the ambush of the bus from the balcony of his school in Christian-dominated East Beirut. 13 April 1975 was a Sunday. Schools in East Beirut are closed on Sundays. See more »
Exhilarating and poignant, as the teen movie gives onto the war film.
When making a film about divisive national conflicts, a familiar device is to frame the historical subject matter in a rites-of-passage narrative. This device produces a number of effects - a contrast between life as the audience knows it, and a historical reality they do not; by following a child's awakening, growing experience and knowledge of the world, it can reveal history and war as a lived experience, and not as something isolated in a textbook; it can show the progress of history as a kind of fall from innocence, as if any child's entering adulthood forces him to acknowledge shocking truths that are merely intensified in a war situation.
'West Beirut' tells the tale of Tarek, a gawky, humungously hootered smart aleck and class clown whom we first see disrupting assembly by blaring Lebanese over a megaphone during 'La Marseillaise'. For some reason, his liberal-left parents have sent him to a French school - this is the first historical nuance the viewer is expected to pick up on: if s/he doesn't, tough.
These opening sequences, messing about with his cousin Omar at school, furtively smoking and staring at attractive relatives, winding up obese neighbours, have something of the freewheeling joy found in a contemporaneous film about adolescence ('West Beirut' is set in 1975), Louis Malle's 'Murmur of the Heart'.
Except, even at this stage, everything is fraught, riven by division - the two languages Tarek speaks, the different religions among whom he co-exists; the different levels of space he inhabits. When he is punished and thrown out of class for disrupting the anthem, he witnesses the beginning of war, the shooting of the passengers on a bus. Again, we are expected to know which side is which, what they're fighting for etc. The main thing is, Tharek's expulsion and the beginning of the war seem to be intimately mixed, almost as if his transgression caused it; and so beings a pattern that shapes the film.
Everything you would expect from a rites-of-passage film is here, but tainted by the war environment - Tarek's first girlfriend is a Christian, making him aware of religious bigotry; his accidental visit to a brothel, his first sexual experience, brings alive to him the division of his city - it's always the subculture that suffers in situations like this. 1970s Lebanon is surprisingly Westernised and liberal, but a general retrenchment occurs, and Omar is expected to go to Mosque. It suddenly becomes dangerous to know the 'wrong' people, and the pressure of this division extends beyond friends into the family itself, between a pride that refuses to be bullied (Tarek's father), and a fear that just wants to get out (his mother).
One of the great things about this film is the way it brings you into a war situation - like us, the characters don't really know what's happening, they have no context - this is random, present-tense, frightening, where the morning cock crow is replaced by bombs as an alarm clock; where military 'protection' is no different from gangsterism. Doueiri's handheld style, used initially to heighten the vividness of youth, can easily adapt to the urgency of war, flitting between the two. The film never betrays either, never suggests childish games are somehow less important.
Omar is a young filmmaker, filming his friends and the city around him. One subplot centres around a film developer on the other side of the city border. A recurrent motif is of looking, being a voyeur, getting to know the world through accessing and interpreting visual information. This may be a biographical portrait of the director as a Young Artist. But, in its modest way, 'West Beirut' performs the same function as Nabokov's 'Speak Memory', using memory, nostalgia, autobiography, not as a comfy escape, but as an artistic weapon against a totalitarian present.
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