The freshest aspect of Ziad Doueiri’s largely autobiographical first feature, West Beirut, is its offhand acknowledgment that war zones can be perversely fun–not least if you’re a hormonal teen with a Super-8 camera. Like its close antecedent, John Boorman’s Blitz-time Hope and Glory, West Beirut gets across this deceptively slight point without seeming glib or irresponsible. Set during the Lebanese civil war, Doueiri’s film captures the initial liberating thrill of anarchy and chaos but also, no less acutely, the creeping onset of fear, helplessness, and claustrophobia.
The 15-year-old protagonist, Tarek (Rami Doueiri, the director’s brother), is established in the opening moments as a wiseass prankster, interrupting the singing of the “Marseillaise” at school with a megaphone rendition of the Lebanese national anthem. Dismissed from class for insolence one day, he witnesses the massacre of a busload of Muslims by masked militia–it’s April 1975, the start of the war between Muslims and Christians that leaves Beirut torn in two.
For the first hour or so, West Beirut revels in a peculiar kind of idyll. School’s out–indefinitely–so Tarek and his friend Omar (Mohamad Chamas) get right to the business of living dangerously. They strut about in their bell-bottoms, turn Omar’s camera on what’s happening around them, risk their lives in an attempt to reach the only lab in Beirut that processes Super-8 film. The boys, both Muslim, are sometimes accompanied by May, a Christian girl from the Muslim west, whom Tarek plainly worships. Indeed, sexual curiosity often serves as a prime motivation for Tarek’s adventures, one of which leads him to a legendary brothel, situated in a no-man’s-land where items of women’s underwear double as white flags.
As the war drags on, religion impinges for the first time on the consciousness of these pop-culture-raised teens, who’d rather live in a world of movie posters and disco 45s. (Tarek mockingly wonders, “Is Paul Anka the work of Satan?”) The most resonant scenes in West Beirut deal with such day-to-day microshifts, in particular the ones that depict Tarek’s home life, as the only son of devoted, intellectual parents. His mother is a lawyer, tormented by the thought of losing her family; his father is an academic who refuses to leave his homeland.
Sketchy and scruffy, West Beirut does lose focus occasionally. Many of its rites-of-passage setups are conventional, and some of the attempts at humor are botched (comic relief too often consists of high-volume neighborhood arguments), but on the whole, Doueiri demonstrates surefootedness as a storyteller. He’s also not lacking in formal ideas. Time is elided, chronology suggested only obliquely with inserts of news footage (the movie apparently spans eight years, but the characters never seem to age). The structure is episodic, though not typically so–each vignette, far from self-contained, is a little ragged on the edges, and all the more vivid for it.Rich in incidental detail, short on political context, West Beirut plays more like a memory piece than a historical document, its rough-hewn urgency in the service of impressionistic intimacy as much as harsh realism.