- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 26, 2000

The major importers are overlooking the strongest dramatic films to appear in 2000, the latest of which is "West Beirut."

Another was "Such a Long Journey," a Canadian-British co-production shot in Bombay and showcased by the Shooting Gallery as part of an art-house series that also unveiled "Croupier."

"West Beirut," a French-Belgian-Norwegian-Lebanese co-production shot in the title city, was acquired by Cowboy Booking International, an obscure distributor based in New York.

The local engagement of "West Beirut," which premiered at Filmfest DC, is being shared by the Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax and the newly opened Visions on the site of the old Cineplex Odeon Embassy Theatre on Florida Avenue NW near Connecticut Avenue.

Like "Journey," the film concerns a family whose solidarity is threatened by war. The clash between India and Pakistan over Bangladesh remained a distant shadow in "Journey." But the sectarian violence in Beirut in 1975 becomes an ever-present, demoralizing and lethal threat in "West Beirut."

This is a semiautobiographical first feature by Ziad Doueiri, who left Lebanon in 1983 at age 20 and became a professional cameraman in Hollywood.

The protagonist of Mr. Doueiri's film is a bright and impulsive teen-ager named Tarek Noueiri, and if the surnames look a little similar, that's not coincidental. Tarek is the filmmaker's impression of himself as a privileged, overstimulated adolescent in a war-torn environment. He relishes the sort of freedom and social deterioration that alarms adults, notably his parents, educated professionals named Hala and Riad (Carmen Lebbos and Joseph Bou Nassar).

Mr. Doueiri cast his younger brother, Rami, as Tarek, who suggests a somewhat older version of the autobiographical protagonists in Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" and John Boorman's "Hope and Glory."

The delinquent exploits of the Parisian schoolboys in the Truffaut classic anticipate the gleeful, irresponsible aspects of Tarek and Omar, his best friend. Mohamad Chamas, who plays Omar, is an invaluable runty dynamo found amid Beirut street children who auditioned for the director.

Initially, the boys regard the spectacle of the terrorist raids and activities of rival, trigger-happy militias as a liberating lark. For starters, they're liberated from school, a situation that echoes Mr. Boorman's World War II memoir, in which English schoolboys are ecstatic to find that a German bomb has leveled their schoolhouse.

Tarek and Omar attend a prestigious French academy that is closed in the aftermath of an Israeli raid on West Beirut, a predominantly Muslim sector sympathetic to the Palestinians. In fact, the raid unfolds before Tarek's fascinated gaze as he watches from a school balcony.

The movie's authenticity and elegiac eloquence derive from balancing a vivid, sobering perception of the war's wanton, destructive features with the heedless, sensuous pleasure it arouses in the boys.

Mr. Doueiri has a terrific pictorial flair for the present tense, whether in the streets or inside dwellings. This sense of immediacy also helps keep the movie from accumulating any slack. Mr. Doueiri telescopes events that may have transpired during four or five years and ought to leave the characters chronologically older.

He can finesse this little detail because the movie has no drop-off in concentration or intensity when scenes shift from Tarek and his parents, for example, to Tarek on the loose in explosive Beirut. The movie's impressionistic method adds up effectively while obviously distilling and summarizing an extended time frame. Each episode seems to get under your skin in some respect, perhaps because everything that unfolds looks so odd and distinctive, as if it originated in messy and unpredictable reality rather than idealized abstraction.

Pivotal scenes also update the state of mind of the principal characters. One comprehends how West Beirut functions as a playground for Tarek, a nightmare for his mother and a patriotic magnet for his father. Most of all, the movie captures the persistence of the life force in settings that also teem with violence and despair.

Balcony vantage points at home abet the boys' fondness for watching demonstrations, arguments and bombardments. The two don't hesitate to wander the streets looking for mischief and turmoil. The partition of the city, with Christian Lebanese militias in control of East Beirut, leaves a kind of ominous frontier called Zeytuni. The boys risk their necks in a bike excursion to a camera store there, the only remaining establishment that reportedly will process Super 8 mm film.

Omar, who owns the camera and loves to expose footage, especially impromptu and surreptitious footage, must use all his force of personality to fast-talk a militiaman who enjoys intimidating young interlopers. The misadventure is complicated more by Tarek and Omar's befriending of a Christian girl named May (Rola Al Amin), a European transplant new to the beleaguered city.

Later, it becomes important to Tarek to retrace the route that left him by accident in a famous brothel of the Zeytuni district. Omar and May tag along on that fool's errand as well. Oum Walid, the madam, awesomely embodied by Leila Karam, is amazed at Tarek's presumption. A formidable woman of the world and political manipulator in order to sustain her trade, she can't fathom the refusal of this youngster to face facts and wise up. "Are you from another planet?" she bellows.

In a way, he is — the planet youth, which can get a kick out of social calamity. By the denouement, something a little humbling has begun to sink in. Tarek even admits to Omar, "I miss school." Against the backdrop of Beirut's ordeals, his admission qualifies as a valedictory insight.

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