Saturday, October 22, 2005

The playground of war in Ziad Doueiri's West Beyrouth

Ziad Doueiri’s West Beyrouth, the high point of the first day of the Asian Film Festival, is set in the civil war-torn Lebanon of 1975. With the war the city of Beirut has broken up into two: West Beirut, controlled by Muslims, and East Beirut, controlled by Christians. But the teenager Tareq and his friend Omar are not entirely displeased by these developments. The violence spiralling all over the city means, after all, the shutting down of school, and a chance to listen to music and talk about women in each other’s homes, hang out on the streets, and shoot all kinds of sequences on Omar’s prized Super-8 film camera, from close-ups of Omar’s gorgeous aunt from a chink in the door to footage of a rally that the two friends join without knowing what it’s for.

War, and all its predations upon settled existence, is of course a deadly serious business, as we know when we see Tareq’s parents deeply disturbed by the conflict, and left without an immediate prospect of an income. Tareq’s mother wants to leave the city; his father insists they will stay and see the crisis through, and tempers fray easily and arguments break out. Indeed - as we are shown in a scene in which the crowing of one family’s rooster at the crack of dawn drives a neighbour wild and culminates in the entire neighbourhood participating in a slanging match - everybody in the large apartment block in which Tareq’s family stays in West Beirut is on edge. But for Tareq and Omar life has grown more pleasurable, not less, and this, the happy and blinkered self-absorption of adolescence, is the subject of Doueiri’s marvellous paean to youthful friendship and coming of age.

Doueiri was an assistant cameraman to Quentin Tarantino on the filming on Reservoir Dogs, and in an interview he speaks of how he learnt one or two things about dealing with actors from Tarantino – about putting them at ease on the sets, and talking to them rather than instructing them. That skill with handling actors shows on West Beyrouth, in which the two lead actors (Rami Doueiri, the director’s younger brother - below left - and Mohammad Chamas, some of whose feistiness must be genuine, for Doueiri picked him up from an orphanage) are unbelievably good – in one scene, we see the two smoking cigarettes and jiving to “Rock You Baby”; in another, Omar narrates to Tareq how his family has suddenly gone all religious and are insisting that film, theatre and music are all agents of deadly corruption, prompting from Tareq the puzzled question: “Is Paul Anka the work of Satan?”

Late in the film, the two friends lose track of each other when soldiers fire at the rally they have joined. Tareq dives into a car for refuge, while Omar runs around looking for his friend, and we fear is there is tragedy lying around the corner, and that Omar will lose his life. But nothing of the sort happens. Instead, the owner of the car drives off, and Tareq finds himself being driven into enemy territory, East Beirut. Gingerly making his way out after the car has been parked, he accidentally enters a brothel run by one of the most legendary figures in Beirut, a massively obese and gravel-voiced woman called Oum Walid. “We thought you were a myth,” confesses the awestruck Tareq to Oum Walid, “but it turns out you’re for real.” For Oum Walid there is no East Beirut and West Beirut, only Beirut. “Since when did a bed have religion?” she hollers. Oum Walid thinks Tareq too young to keep such company, and throws him out, but not before he has enjoyed a cup of coffee prepared by a gorgeous siren. Reaching home late that night, Tareq tells the relieved Omar all about his day and describes how marvellous the cup of coffee was. “Nescafe!” Omar spits out in disgust. “I almost get shot, while you hang out at the whorehouse!”

In the film’s most beautifully realised scene, Tareq and Omar go out bicycling with a beautiful Christian girl, May, whom Tareq has befriended, much to Omar’s disgust. After a scrape with some militia, in which the cross on May’s neck almost lands them in trouble, the three teenagers fight, Tareq stomps off and Omar chases him down, and they lose track of May. They run back down the streets they had taken, searching for her. Finally they find May sitting, absolutely serene, at her piano lessons. She smiles at them without interrupting her playing, and they look on in silent admiration. The notes become louder and wash over the scene, at which point we suddenly cut to scene of bombings and carnage, of a cripple scrounging in a garbage heap for food, while the same beautiful and soothing notes continue in the background. The juxtaposition is not a facile one pointing to all the horrors that are taking place while three teenagers listen to music – rather it suggests that, for May, music provides a place of refuge that keeps out the trauma of the present, banishes it for a while. (West Beyrouth’s music, incidentally, has been scored by Stewart Copeland, the former drummer of The Police.) And we know that the reality of West Beirut does finally invade Tareq's consciousness - the film's last shots, which present some black and white Super-8 footage of him with his mother on the beach, suggests that his mother lost her life in the war.

Doueiri is a startlingly blunt talker, with a great line in black humour. This interview with Anthony Kaufman is full of highly quotable material, and ends with this droll rendition of how, since West Beyrouth, despite all the acclaim it received, didn’t make him too much money, he had to go back to working in commercials and doing other kinds of donkey work:

But there is no shame in working, so I don't feel guilty. But it's like this commercial I was doing, the entire crew came from London. And we were laying out the shot and the camera. And the director says, "Guys, by the way, I saw this great movie called 'West Beirut'" And the D.P. turns to him, pointing to me and says, "That's the director." And he says, "Oh right." And the D.P. said, "I swear, that's the director." And then the director, he comes to me, and his whole demeanor is changed throughout the commercial. I swear to you, he says, "Do you think we could put the camera here?" And I'm like, "Yeah, we can put the camera there."

Tomorrow, a post about either Tahmineh Milani's Two Women, or Bahman Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly.

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