Lebanese scripter-helmer Ziad Doueiri makes a richly assured debut with “West Beirut,” Lebanon’s answer to “Hope and Glory.” Lively, historically freighted coming-of-age tale is a technically polished, frequently funny and emotionally affecting work that bodes well indeed for creative rebirth in this now-recovering corner of the Middle East. Pic’s geographical setting, no-name cast and Arabic dialogue may sound daunting to potential distribs, but pic actually fits nicely into the current wave of ’70s-set tales. While hardtops are deciding whether to take the plunge, fests won’t have to think twice.
Much as John Boorman’s WWII memoir posited that war may be hell but it’s also sort of nifty if you’re a kid, 90% autobiographical pic from Quentin Tarantino’s assistant cameraman portrays the freewheeling adventures of a resourceful and irreverent adolescent boy in the early stages of the civil war that divided Beirut into East and West.
Self-assured class clown Tarek (helmer’s brother, Rami Doueiri) is bounced from class by his French teacher on April 13, 1975, just in time to observe the bloody massacre of 30 bus passengers by masked gunmen that marked the start of civil war. Tarek and his feisty buddy Omar (Mohamad Chamas, whom helmer cast from an orphanage) are picked up by Tarek’s mom, Hala (Carmen Lebbos). Hala, a lawyer, and her intellectual husband, Riad (Joseph Bou Nassar), enjoy a loving marriage and an indulgent, joshing relationship with their bright but hormone-addled only son.
The next day’s papers do little to clarify what’s really going on, but it’s already impossible for Muslims to cross into East Beirut, and school is closed, apparently for good. Hala is ready to pull up stakes and flee after the first few bombing raids, but Riad has seen armed conflicts threaten and subside all his life. He doesn’t believe the current troubles will last long and refuses to budge.
With his open manner and infectious grin, lanky, bell-bottomed Tarek is on friendly terms with all the neighborhood characters, particularly Hassan (Mahmoud Mabsout), a baker and falafel vendor. Tarek, Omar and their new neighbor, May (Rola Al Amin), a lovely young Christian girl, enjoy the unprecedented freedom to explore occasioned by a complete disruption of routine. But the war hits home when the trio’s mission to drop off Super-8 film (including surreptitiously taken footage of an uncle’s foxy young girlfriend) turns into a scary showdown with a border patrol. The only photo shop that develops the amateur format is out of reach in East Beirut.
As apolitical and secular Muslims who haven’t read a word of the Koran, Tarek and Omar can’t quite fathom Omar’s dad’s newfound belief that movies and rock music are the devil’s work. “You mean Paul Anka is in service to Satan?” asks Tarek.
From the protagonists’ apartment block to encounters in the street, most verbal exchanges take the form of “Why converse calmly if you can hurl inventive curses?” Surly outbursts from fat and shrewish neighbor woman Nahida (Liliane Nemry), who’s forever berating her lazy hubby, are especially vivid and entertaining.
When fleeing from the fallout of a street demonstration, Tarek ends up at the legendary brothel of Madame Oum-Walid (Leila Karam). Civilities erode as the war wears on with no end in sight.
Shot on location in a ratio of one-third each hand-held, via Steadicam and tripod-mounted, lensing is spirited and editing keenly paced. Awash in local color, pic radiates vitality and is full of well-observed human touches, many of them laugh-out-loud funny. Bombings and explosions have the ring of truth, and thesps are fine across the board.
Stewart Copeland’s score is delightful. As a side note, the composer and former drummer for The Police lived in Lebanon for 10 years after his dad opened the CIA’s bureau in Beirut.