West Beirut is about the 1975 uprising that divided the city of Beirut into Muslim and Christian sectors, and that led to over a decade of civil war. A chilling story based on the writer/director's boyhood memories, the film underscores the terrors children suffer during wartime--not the obvious ones of hunger or the loss of their homes, but the fear that their parents will be killed, and the slow realization that their life at school, at play, and with their extended family and friends may soon cease to exist. At first, Ziad Doueiri's protagonists, Tarek (Rami Doueiri) and his friend Omar (Mohamad Chamas), are delighted that the French school they attend has been closed; they can play their boyhood games, ride their bikes to the outskirts of the city, and fantasize about women. As the scattered gunfire erupts into full-scale war, however, the children wander the streets, partly in fear of what they will find when they return home.
Although Doueiri resisted the idea of having his younger brother portray him in the film, it is Rami Doueiri's performance that distinguishes West Beirut, as well as the stunning cinematography which brings you so close to the violence that you're often on the edge of your seat. In the street scenes where there are protests and unexpected clashes between battling militias, Doueiri's direction is flawless. When Tarek and Omar join a protest march in order to film it with Omar's Super 8 camera, and the boys are suddenly separated in the crowd, Doueiri's tracking shots of them weaving in and out, frantically searching for each other, is terrifying. In quieter moments, it's obvious that Doueiri is influenced by the French New Wave directors. Throughout the film, there are brief visual tributes to them, but the most obvious is the closing freeze frame, a nod to Truffaut. Like Antoine, Truffaut's unforgettable hero in The 400 Blows, Omar and Tarek no longer have a childhood; too much has happened to change their lives.
While this first film shows promise, primarily because of Doueiri's visual sensibilities, the script is flawed, first because it assumes too much familiarity with recent Lebanese history. At the beginning of the film, Doueiri cleverly introduces some historical background through a reporter's voice on a car radio, but not enough to jog our jumbled memories of Middle East conflicts; American audiences will probably recall the hundreds of Marines killed in Beirut, but not the complicated forces that led to the Lebanese civil war. Doueiri's screenplay also departs from classic narrative structure--although Tarek is in almost every scene, the events of the film are not driven by his emotional life. Motivation seems to come from somewhere else, mostly from the chronology of the war. The resut is a character too ill-defined to provide any level of emotional complexity to the film.
What haunts you long after you've seen West Beirut is the odd mixture of beauty and sadness that seems to characterize every face. It's as though the Lebanese have had their troubles etched into their eyes. Rola Al Amin, who plays Tarek's female friend, 16 when she made the film, has since dropped out of high school, Chamas is alone in a refugee camp, his only living relative in jail. The ravages of a civil war don't end with a peace agreement--if that were so, the real lives of these child actors, born a few years after it was signed, would not be so precarious. In the end, Doueiri deserves credit for the courage of his effort, for his obvious desire to go beyond the fictional boundaries of moviemaking to illustrate the continuing plight of the Lebanese people.