How Ziad Doueiri’s civil war bio-drama West Beirut opened the door for Arab indie cinema

The year 2018 has already proved one of monumental milestones for Ziad Doueiri. In March, the controversial Lebanese filmmaker made history as the first director to represent his country at the Academy Awards, with a Best Foreign Language Film nod his fourth picture The Insult. Now, May marks the 20th anniversary of Doueiri’s game-changing debut picture West Beirut, which won the François Chalais Award following its premiere at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival and was soon after described as both the first Arabic-language film to be released worldwide, and hailed The Guardian, “the biggest Arab film ever”. If Middle Eastern filmmaking has indisputably enjoyed a creative renaissance in the 21st century, then West Beirut helped pave the way.

With sad inevitability, it was the subject of war which unlocked international cinema screens. But while Doueiri cut his teeth serving on first assistant camera for Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, there is none of Tarantino’s sensationalist gore in his autobiographical Lebanese Civil War drama.

Despite reservations, the director’s younger brother Rami Doueiri was cast as West Beirut’s Truffaut-esque alter-ego Tarek, a goofy, anti-authoritarian, middle-class teenager who we first encounter disrupting the French national anthem in the schoolyard. Following the catastrophic bus massacre of April 1975 – viscerally evoked to a stirring Fairuz lament – the city is carved in two. Military checkpoints prevent Tarek from ever again making the journey from his home in Muslim West Beirut to that snobby, post-colonial school in the Christian East.

For Tarek and friend Omar (Mohamad Chamas), initially it’s a lark: These hormone-charged, flare-waring teens use the free time to dig disco LPs, spy on girls, gate-crash a brothel, eat falafel, shoot Super 8 film and befriend a sultry Christian neighbour (Rola Al Amin), while gunshots, snipers and underground shelters punctuate life after dark.  Stewart Copeland of The Police provides the soundtrack.

Politics are never far from the frame – “Since when has the West understood the East?”, says Tarek’s lovable father, recalling his own juvenile resistance to the French with weary pathos, words which continue to resonate 20 years later. We’re looking at you John Hamm, who stars in the clumsy Hollywood thriller Beirut reportedly so one-sided in its approach it attracted calls to be banned in Lebanon before it was even released (ironically, another movie to face boycott-calls across the Arab world was The Insult – including, according to Newsweek, being pulled from cinemas in predominantly Muslim West Beirut – in protest to Doueiri’s use of Israeli locations in his last movie, The Attack).

Yet at its core West Beirut is a charming, coming-of-age tale, painted in nostalgic hues and grounded in a fresh colloquialism, coloured by Arabic swear words then normally censored from screens. A sepia memoir told with a sharp comedic edge and a feel for the thrum of the streets, from the carefree vantage of adolescence – albeit one where the joys of youth are slowly eviscerated by the realities of war. In perhaps the most telling scene, the morning after a violent bout of nocturnal shelling, enterprising locals peddle replacement glass windows. The message of resilience is clear: with or without war, people grow up, grow old, fall in and out of love – the human tragedy of life continues.

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