Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

A fascinating ordinariness

By Youssef Rakha

What can one expect of Quentin Tarantino's Lebanese cameraman when he decides to make his own movie? Perhaps a suave display of violence under the auspices of a tightly constructed narrative, stylishly delineated. Some reference to the new filmmaker's troubled birthplace. But hardly autobiographical documentary.

Last year West Beirut (Lebanon/France, 1998), Ziyad Doueiri's refreshingly unexpected debut, fascinated audiences worldwide no less by its intimate evocation of the lives of ordinary people in 1970s Beirut (shot entirely on location, West Beirut reconstructs 1975 in exact detail) than by its technical prowess. Though screened in a number of festivals, including the 1998 Cairo Film Festival, not enough people have seen it in the Arab world to merit an appropriate response. Since it is unlikely that the film will ever be shown commercially in Egypt, the decision by this year's festival administration to screen the last four winners of the Institut du Monde Arabe's Film Biennale (1992-1998) is to be appreciated, if only because it gives Egyptians another chance to see the film.

The action revolves round the teenage Tarek Noueiri (Rami Doueiri), his parents and his friend Omar (Mohamed Shamas) -- all residents of the predominantly Muslim, western half of the city. When the film begins Tarek is running amok at the school he attends, which like most French establishments, is located in East Beirut. He is making raucous fun of his colonially minded French teachers whose admonitions, delivered in civil French, contrast with his witty, streetwise Arabic. Significantly, his first misdeed is to appropriate the microphone and start singing the Lebanese national anthem, interrupting the French anthem which the students, standing in line, are forced to recite every morning. The whole school soon joins in and there is nothing the French staff can do to stop them. Far from betraying naive patriotism, however, the scene, like everything else in the film, remains within the confines of the ordinary and the real. Patriotic feeling is ironically subverted as it becomes a teenager's way of rejecting academic authority. But when Tarek purposely fails to spell Monsieur on the blackboard and is kicked out of class, the first thing he sees, leaning against the railing from the second floor, is someone being killed.

The scene is shot brilliantly, allowing a glimpse of the French teacher -- in class and still reiterating her pro-colonial, irrelevant admonitions -- while focusing on the snipers who increasingly populate the streets. War seeps into life undifferentially, as a fact, not a grand cause or an excuse for melodrama.

Next morning Tarek is delighted when his arguments against going to school (that it would be shut for the day, perhaps the week or the month) prove correct. At one point his father's car is stopped by armed men and -- despite the loud arguments against being Muslim or Christian and for being simply Lebanese, a resident of Beirut -- the car is denied passage. Beirut has already been partitioned. While his mother, a lawyer, becomes progressively more and more frightened by events, at several points actually attempting to leave the country with her son, his father, despite financial troubles -- he is a landowner who can no longer reach his orange groves -- and a sense of responsibility as the patriarch of the family retains a more level-headed sense of balance, comforting her when he can.

Tarek and Omar, no longer forced to study or go to school but free to pursue city pleasures to their hearts' content, are forced to realise, in scenes that are by turns funny, moving or beset by suspense, that they are no longer residents of an entire city, but only of West Beirut. In the meantime Tarek's Christian girlfriend, who nonetheless lives nearby, Mary (Rola Al-Amin) has joined in their adventures. The fates of all three protagonists become bound as they explore the city, in the process revealing the confusion, the tragedy and the pointlessness of war. These teenagers no longer have a future to look forward to (their best bet is to try and get to France somehow), no longer enjoy the security and stability of middle-class family life (Omar's father, for example, is turning into a Muslim fundamentalist), and no longer trust their parents' power to save them. Danger, moreover, besets their every breath as they are unexpectedly subjected to situations with which they do not know how to deal. In an impressive twist, Omar's 8mm camera, instead of capturing the bodies of unknowing female relatives, begins to document the war, and Doueiri's smooth, colourful shots are sometimes interspersed with Omar's rough black-and-white images. These people are growing up, invaded by the war.

Perhaps the most memorable scene is when the three protagonists are trapped in a desolate building on the border of East Beirut. It is memorable not only because it is delightfully life-affirming, but also because it typifies the film's beautifully down-to-earth, non-ideological way of dealing with a subject easily susceptible to moralising and sentimentality. The war is a profound misadventure, Doueiri seems to be saying, but it is life, whatever the conditions, that laughs last. They are eager to visit the whore house which Tarek has unwittingly discovered, but if they take one step, they will almost certainly be killed. Tarek resorts to a trick he has learned but not yet attempted. If you flash a brassiere while you pass, that indicates to the snipers that you are only going to the whore house, that you have nothing to do with the war. After Mary reluctantly concedes, Tarek raises her brassiere as high as he can, and the three explorers pass unharmed.

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