September 2, 1999
To Live and Die in West Beirut
By Tom Tugend,
There have been a few Israeli films that dealt with relationships between Arabs and Jews (among them the superb prison drama "Beyond the Walls"), but rarely do we see an Arab movie that tells the story from the perspective of the "other side."
If only to fill that gap, the screening of "West Beirut" is a welcome addition to the short list of foreign-language movies available to American audiences.
The film by Ziad Doueiri, a young Lebanese cinematographer making his directorial debut, begins in 1975, the beginning of Lebanon's 17-year-old civil war.
The fighting quickly divides cosmopolitan Beirut, dubbed "The Paris of the Middle East," into warring camps, with Christian militiamen controlling East Beirut, and the Muslims, West Beirut.
Three 16-year-olds, two Muslim boys and a Christian girl living in West Beirut, are the protagonists and, at first, the sporadic fighting is a lark. School is closed, parents are preoccupied with other problems and the three teens are free to roam the city, shoot Super 8 films, listen to American pop music and, perhaps most importantly, explore their sexuality.
In a memorable scene, they visit a legendary brothel in the Olive Quarter between East and West Beirut, the only enterprise still patronized by both Christians and Muslims.
The kids' elders, too, try to shrug off the fighting at first. "It's something between the Palestinians and the Israelis," says one man. "It has something to do with the Israelis and the Syrians," says another.
But as the war drags on, even the resilient teen-agers find the fun going out of their explorations. Food is in short supply, people they know are killed, the camera shop that developed their film is now in enemy territory.
Their parents think of emigrating, but, in a refrain with some resonance for Jews, no country wants Lebanese refugees. At the end, one father sighs despondently, "100,000 dead and the game still goes on."
There are no professional child actors in Lebanon, and director Doueiri relied on amateurs, including his younger brother, to portray the teens.
Their inexperience shows at times, but the importance of the film lies in portraying the humanity of the "other"; in reaffirming the truism that even in war, people are mainly concerned with their mundane personal problems and pleasures; and in affording a candid look at the teen-agers' world.
"West Beirut" opens at Laemmle's Music Hall on Sept. 3.