Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri’s film debut, “West Beirut,” is a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the early years of the Lebanese civil war.
The film follows three teenagers as they roam Beirut with a super-8 camera in hand, after the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 forces the closure of their French lycée. Tarek, played by the filmmaker’s brother, Rami Doueiri, and Omar, portrayed by Mohamad Chamas, team up with May (Rola Al Amin) a beautiful Christian refugee who moves into Tarek’s apartment building and whom a jealous Omar dubs the “Virgin Mary.”
The three explore a Beirut in which borders and divisions, both real and psychological, are being drawn. Armed with nothing but youthful energy and political naivete, they land themselves in a series of adventures, one of which leads them to the brothel of Oum Walid, situated on the Green Line. There the madam, played by Lebanese actress Leila Karam, tells Tarek that there is no East or West at Oum Walid’s — there is only one Beirut. Tarek innocently suggests that perhaps Yasser Arafat and Bashir Gemayel should settle their differences at Oum Walid’s.
In “West Beirut,” war is seen only occasionally in the streets. Its psychological horrors are played out in more intimate settings, in the bedrooms and living rooms of Tarek’s apartment as his mother, played by a feisty Carmen Lebbos, slowly begins to lose her composure under the strain of war, and his father, theater actor Joseph Bou Nasser, sinks into quiet despair. As the war brings with it increasing hardship, Tarek, too, begins to yearn for the days when he crossed over to East Beirut to attend his much-maligned French school.
The film has been criticized by some for glossing over the Lebanese civil war. But 36-year-old Doueiri, who left Beirut in 1983 to study film at the University of San Diego and UCLA and later worked as a cameraman for filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, is unapologetic about his desire to make a film accessible to American audiences.
It has paid off. “West Beirut” has received favorable reviews in, among other publications, The New York Times, the New Yorker magazine and the New Republic. It is currently playing in theaters in a number of major American cities.