Random Acts of Adolescence

West Beirut

In his award-winning memoir of life in the Middle East, journalist Thomas L. Friedman compares Beirut to a Skinner box, the maze apparatus mice are forced to navigate in psychology experiments. For Friedman, Beirut (the capital of Old World disorder) possessed a particular and brutal capacity for conditioning its inhabitants to accept the likelihood of random and instantaneous death.

What does it mean to grow up in a place where the prospects of getting old seem so ridiculously remote? This is the question explored by Ziad Doueiri's West Beirut, a coming-of-age film that succeeds in capturing both the shared thrills of adolescence (acting up in school, sneaking a smoke, fantasizing about losing one's virginity) and the almost unimaginable particulars of life in a war zone.

It's 1975. Tarek Nouiere (Rami Doueiri) is sixteen, sweet, funny, and rebellious. He loves his parents, hates the French high school he attends in Beirut, and has a crush on the girl who lives up the stairs. He is also, like everyone around him, trapped in the first act of the (latest) Lebanese civil war.

Life during wartime: Who says this ain’t no disco?
Life during wartime: Who says this ain’t no disco?
Life during wartime: Who says this ain’t no disco?
Life during wartime: Who says this ain’t no disco?

The film opens in the courtyard of the French high school, with students peering up at an aerial battle between two planes and arguing over their respective models ("It's a MiG 21 ..., no, a Hawker Hunter....") as casually as American kids once identified cars in the distance by their tail fins. After one of the planes is shot out of the sky, the students resume their school day with "La Marseillaise," a relic (like the school itself) of French influence. In an act of rebellious mischief, Tarek makes his way to the open balcony on the second floor and interrupts the singing with his rendition, delivered through a megaphone, of the Lebanese national anthem. Back in the classroom, Tarek frustrates the austere Madame Vieillard's attempts to discipline him by simply refusing to take her seriously.

Instructed to leave the classroom, Tarek pauses at a hallway window overlooking the street. Below, a squad of masked gunmen positions itself as a bus approaches. They spring from the shadows, firing methodically and cruelly into the vehicle. Inside, bodies crumple. An old woman, mortally wounded, falls to the pavement. (The scene is a loose re-enactment of the actual April 13, 1975, ambush of a Palestinian bus by Lebanon's Phalangist Christian faction, an attack in which 27 Palestinians were killed.)

With this episode director Doueiri thematically links the trials and mysteries of adolescence to the chaos of ethnic and religious conflict in the region. In the course of the film, Tarek and his friends -- his comically beleaguered schoolmate Omar (Mohamad Chamas) and his pretty (and Christian) upstairs neighbor May (Rola Al Amin) -- will simultaneously negotiate an urban geography increasingly marked by armed guards, sniper fire, and street demonstrations, and take their initial steps on the symbolic journey into adulthood.

No single story line drives the film. Rather its chief strength is its preoccupation with the texture of everyday life under exceptional circumstances. West Beirut is not a newspaper headline brought to life but the story of a family in turmoil (Tarek's father is unemployed when the film opens; his mother will soon be prevented by the conflict from working). It also is the story of the threatening yet wondrous world that lies beyond that home; should we be surprised that the only seemingly safe space in Beirut -- and the site of some of the film's funniest and saddest revelations -- is the legendary brothel of Oum Walid?

The film is a rich hybrid of European cinematic traditions and American idioms. Stylistically indebted to both Italian Neorealism (the school that practically invented the "coming-of-age-amid-the-rubble-of-war" genre in the 1940s) and the French New Wave, West Beirut is what Truffaut might have done with Saturday Night Fever. (Not merely a fanciful juxtaposition: Look at the closeup of Tarek and Omar's bell-bottom-shrouded feet pounding the pavement à la Travolta while the Seventies dance hit Rock Your Baby plays on the soundtrack.) Indeed the film is steeped in familiar pop-culture references. Tarek labels Omar's uncle Telly Savalas and tells his mother that she drives like Steve McQueen (just before she plows into a car). Omar laments his family's newfound insistence on religious training and intolerance for Western culture by asking, rhetorically, if Paul Anka is the work of Satan.

If the film has a failing, it is the partially formed adult characters. Riad and Hala -- Tarek's father and mother -- at times are little more than chorus figures, representing, respectively, History and Hysteria. Riad (Joseph Bou Nassar) routinely begins conversation with lines such as, "Do you remember 1963?" and "Remember what they said in 1958?" These mechanical recollections might be helpful to an American audience unfamiliar with Lebanon's history but hardly make for a memorable character. Hala (Carmen Lebbos), though more humanly drawn, nevertheless is given the unnecessary task of reminding us what an unlivable place Lebanon is becoming.

But, then, the adults are not the primary focus of West Beirut. Ultimately the film takes after its young protagonists. Like Tarek, Omar, and May, it is, by turns, hip and funny, sly and adventuresome.

 
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