Dreams and Defiance: Ziad Doueiri’s West Beyrouth (1998)

AUC Times - December 2014.

The sound of gunshots, screams, and frustrated car engines is enmeshed with the background music; one tinted with a pinch of gloominess that serves as a melancholic prelude. “They are not letting anyone pass,” uttered a bearded man wearing a black and white checkered scarf, a kaffiya, with his rifle resting effortlessly on his left shoulder. The picture then turns to the car’s backseat, showing a wide, light-hearted smile radiating from a young face. “We are from Beirut,” replies the man on the steering wheel, only to be met with further irritation from the bearded man in the kaffiya, asking him to turn around immediately because “they are not letting anyone pass ‘ya zalimeh’, Beirut has become east and west.” With the car’s anguish -perhaps its reluctance- it turns around. “From which Beirut have we become?,” is unsurprisingly uttered. A reply follows the innocent question, one that entails recognition of a new life those people -who once inhabited a single Beirut -now have to get themselves accustomed to:

West Beirut.

This is how Ziad Doueiri, who directed the groundbreaking film, introduced the tragic conflict that raged on for fifteen years, ravaged the entire country of Lebanon, and claimed countless innocent lives: the Lebanese Civil War which erupted in 1975. The essentially political debacle, one that retained intense sectarian overtones, is recounted in this film through snippets of the daily lives of the inhabitants of Beirut. Amidst a war-torn country, a turbulent tale is intricately woven, and all attempts at smoothing out its rough edges are ruled out. The minute political details of the conflict are not what concern the filmmaker of West Beyrouth. Rather, the portrayal of the people’s sentiments -the feelings, thoughts, fears, and dreams of those always involved in and affected most by war- is what stands out in opposition to the unfolding of the war’s events.

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Doueiri without doubt skillfully interweaves the narrative of the war, and sprinkles it with odes to art, filmmaking, love, patriotism, and most importantly to Beirut, a city determined to live on despite the destruction, both literal and metaphoric, it had to temporarily endure. As much as West Beyrouth’s events are centered on the Civil War, the film’s scope extends beyond and reaches out for the questions that probed at the heart of Lebanese society. Thus, it comes as no surprise that anti-imperialism, Pan-Arabism, and Phoenicianism are so gently addressed against the backdrop of the incumbent war.

Doueiri narrates the story of the Civil War through Tariq, a teenage high-school student whose life progresses in parallel to that of the war, and who is eventually forced to come face to face with the horrid reality that ensues from it. Tariq’s care-free, lighthearted, and humorous spirit is juxtaposed to his surroundings that by time evolve to become unbearably despicable. It is perhaps Doueiri’s choice to depict Tariq’s tears and highlight his fears only once throughout the entire duration of the film, that best portrays the way in which the conflict gradually creeps into the details of his personality. Tariq’s resistance to, and perhaps battle with, this new reality is carried out through his adventures with his neighbors, his filming, and even his rather comical yet honest suggestion for the solution to the war; a battle that enables him to willfully and strongly –yet momentarily –defy it. In that moment, he in fact carves out a distinct and new reality for himself and for his two other teenage companions, Omar and May. In that new reality, Tariq, Omar, and May, intent on finding their way freely around their city create a necklace that bears the Cross and the name of Allah –religious symbols for the two major contending groups of the Civil War –that would sanction them in their movement from one side of the city to the other, from east to west Beirut. The simplicity of the resolutions they employ against their obstacles delineate their resolve –or perhaps their unwillingness to succumb to the pains entailed by the war. In essence, the three teenagers are an epitome of a generation, one that witnessed the war first-hand and whose lives progressed in line with, and in great part were eventually shaped by, its ebbs and flows.

The Lebanese Civil War was regarded as “a worldwide synonym for chaos,” as Andrew O’Hehir notes in its review of the film on Cinema of the World. The events presented through Doueiri’s camera are not ones void of chaos; chaos is, as a matter of fact, central to the events experienced by the characters and their city. Nonetheless, it is coming to terms with that chaos, maneuvering around it, etching out a living, and pronouncing the determination to live against its will, that render West Beyrouth’s recounting of the war overwhelmingly poignant and simultaneously insightful. By unearthing the follies of war, exposing them one after the other, Doueiri essentially highlights the unresolved confusion that is entailed in such a situation.

Through the eyes, dreams, and tears of those who experienced and lived through it, untrammeled by the political convolutions that overshadow those real and sincere experiences: the story could not have been told otherwise.

The film is available on YouTube.

 

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