By Stephanie Zacharek
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Ziad Doueiri was 12 in 1975, the year that fighting broke out in his hometown, Beirut. As civil war fractured the city into a Christian east and Muslim west, transforming that "Paris of the Middle East" into a playground for bombers and snipers, he was battling his own raging hormones.
"I was mostly chasing after girls," recalls the 36-year-old director of West Beirut, his first film, based on memories of adolescence in the divided city. "When you're afraid, sexuality helps you survive. For example, at night, when the bombs would fall, we'd pile into the shelter with our neighbors, everyone in pajamas. It was scary. But I was also checking out the girls."
His debut feature is a coming-of-age story set in a country that is falling apart. Fifteen-year-old Tarek is relieved when his school closes for an indefinite period. He spends his days prowling around the Muslim sector with his pal Omar and his neighbor May, who is Christian. Laced with black humor, West Beirut vividly evokes the region's hot tempers and human warmth, but its real achievement lies in striking a delicate balance between the insouciant optimism of its young protagonists and the half-understood but growing tragedy that surrounds them.
Doueiri left Beirut in 1983, "when things started getting really bad," he says. He studied filmmaking at the University of California at San Diego and UCLA, and went on to a busy career as a cameraman on films by Quentin Tarantino and others.
"For years, my American friends would ask me, How was it, explain, why the conflict? They were so clueless. Well, I wanted to make a film to show that, yes, we had problems, but we were growing up there, too.
"There wasn't war and sniping every day. Sometimes we would hear, like, Park Avenue is dangerous, Chelsea is dangerous, but the streets to Soho are okay. So we would go there. A week later there would be bombing, and no one would go."
Shooting in present-day Beirut was an adventure. The city has been almost entirely rebuilt, but the scars of war remain in memory. (They also mark the lives of cast members, like Mohamad Chamas, an orphan who still lives in a refugee camp on the city's outskirts.) In one telling scene, as Tarek argues vehemently with a taxi driver over next to nothing, rifle-bearing militiamen appear out of nowhere, firing into the air to get the traffic rolling.
"We needed more cars," Doueiri recalls, "so we just let the real traffic of the city pile up. One old woman got out of her car, lay down on the ground, and started sobbing. She was sure the war had returned."
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