Posts Tagged ‘Ziad Doueiri’

West_Beirut

Director: Ziad Doueiri

Writer: Ziad Doueiri

Country: France / Norway / Lebanon / Belgium 1998

Runtime: 105 mins

A funny and moving account of growing up in a conflict zone

My first exposure to Ziad Doueiri’s directorial work was his excellent 2012 film The Attack (reviewed here on 27th February 2014), the story of an eminent Palestinian surgeon whose wife – unbeknownst to him – carries out a suicide bombing. Thanks to the British Film Institute’s “Discover Arab Cinema” strand, I have now had the opportunity to  catch up with one of Doueiri’s earlier films, West Beirut. Unlike The Attack, however, this film has a number of comedic elements that offset the more serious underlying themes. The story concerns the experiences of two friends, Tarek and Omar, growing up in the Beirut of 1975, the year in which civil war broke out and the city became divided into the Muslim west and the Christian east. Doueiri himself grew up in Beirut during this period and it is perhaps this experience that gives the film a sense of raw immediacy. HIs own son Rami plays Tarek the bigger (and possibly older) of the two boys, with Omar played by Mohamad Chamas. 

Tarek is a typically impulsive and rebellious teenager. In an early scene that is perhaps an ironic nod to Casablanca, we see him undermining the teacher at his French-run school by singing the Lebanese anthem through a bullhorn as she is leading the others in the Marseillaise. After giving him a lecture in the superiority of French civilisation she sends him out into the corridor, from where he witnesses gunmen ambush a bus in the street. The next day, there are militias on the streets and Tarek’s parents are unable to deliver him to school. They learn that Christian militias have blockaded routes into the eastern part of the city. 

As the civil war envelops Beirut tensions rise between Tarek’s parents. His mother wants to leave the city, but his father is adamant they should stay, pointing out that they aren’t guaranteed a warm welcome elsewhere. He notes that the Lebanese are regarded as “deluxe” refugees in Switzerland and that sniffer dogs are set upon them at Heathrow Airport. 

Meanwhile, Tarek himself is motivated by other concerns. After shooting some sneak footage of the attractive girlfriend of Omar’s uncle he is determined to get the film developed. Unfortunately, the processing shop is now behind a militia checkpoint and Tarek is not allowed to pass. Tarek hardly seems aware of the danger that he is putting himself in, but Omar has a greater political awareness and tries to restrain his friend. Omar is also exasperated when Tarek makes friends with a Christian neighbour, May (Rola Al Amin), who openly wears a crucifix. Omar considers that this friendship is putting them both in danger. A turning point comes when, by a quirk of fate, Tarek inadvertently finds himself in the one location where people from both the east and west can still congregate: Madame Oum Walid’s brothel. Here, militia men check their guns at the door and mingle freely inside. Tarek discovers that there is even an agreed-upon code that allows patrons to pass through otherwise hostile areas – they need to fly a bra from a prominent place, such as a car aerial.

As if to remind us how real these events were for the inhabitants of Beirut, the film is interspersed with archive documentary clips from that period. However, Doueiri does not involve us with political arguments and, indeed, there is a lot of humour. What is brilliantly conveyed in West Beirut is that most people caught up in the conflict are just ordinary people trying to lead ordinary lives. They could be living anywhere. Tarek’s mother is a lawyer in the local courtroom. His father is currently trying to find work. The boys like pop music and Tarek has a Western sci-fi movie poster on his wall. One indication of the way in which people under duress might change comes from Omar, who tells Tarek that his father has decided their family should regularly attend the local mosque. In other words, this is religiosity arising from insecurity.

West Beirut is a hugely engaging and enjoyable film, ultimately very moving, and is one to look out for.

Rating: 9/10

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First released in 2012, The Attack is a story that addresses the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, yet has been banned in most Arab countries because it was partly filmed in Israel. This is a great shame because it is a splendid film. I caught up with it this week at the BFI in London.

The film tells the story of Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), an eminent Palestinian surgeon who works with Jewish colleagues at a hospital in Tel Aviv. Just prior to receiving a major award, Amin’s wife Siham (Reymond Amsalem), who is visiting family, rings his mobile phone, but he tells her he cannot speak at that moment and will have to call later. Upon receiving his award, Amin gives a speech that acknowledges the difficulties of being a Palestinian in Israel, but expresses optimism for the future.

The following day, whilst Amin is lunching with colleagues on the hospital terrace, the city is rocked by an explosion and shortly afterwards Amin is trying to save the lives of bloodied victims. We discover that a bomb exploded in a restaurant and most of the dead were children who had been enjoying a party. Later that night Amin is woken from sleep by a phone call and asked to come back to the hospital. Upon arrival he is asked to identify his wife’s body. She was killed in the explosion. The identification scene is truly distressing, because only the top half of Siham’s body is on the mortuary table.

Shortly afterwards Amin is arrested by the police. They tell him that his wife’s injuries are such that she must have been the bomber. Based on this they assume that he, too, must have been involved. Amin’s interrogation is brutal, involving sleep deprivation, being forced to listen to loud music in his cell, and bullying questioning from tough shaven-headed cops. However, there is no evidence to substantiate Amin’s involvement and he is released. He goes home, only to find his house has been ransacked and graffitied, but then he discovers the letter that his wife has left him and the truth is revealed. She was the bomber. He then resolves to discover the terrorist cell who had brainwashed her (he assumes). What he discovers is a world of fear and distrust among family, friends, and the religious radicals he believes to be behind acts of terror. Even his Jewish colleagues at the hospital, who he had considered friends, and who are trying to be sympathetic to his plight, are now viewed with suspicion.

Although The Attack was a story told from the perspective of a Palestinian, it seemed to me that Ziad Doueiri’s film was pretty even-handed. There was no moralising and no simple political messages. On the one hand, we can sympathise with Amin at the end of the picture when he is left wondering if he has abandoned his roots in order to pursue his personal career. The optimism he had expressed in his speech at the start now rings hollow. On the other hand, it is quite easy to sympathise with Amin’s Jewish colleagues when they watch in helpless bewilderment as the man they respect so much starts to distance himself from them. The film also leaves us with the question that features on the poster for the film: “Do you ever really know the one you love?”

Rating: 9/10

Updates: Spelling error corrected on 27.02.14