LONDON: This year has 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 fourth picture “The Insult” (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film). Now, May marks the 20th anniversary of Doueiri’s game-changing debut “West Beirut”, which won the François Chalais Award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival and was soon after hailed as the first Arabic-language film to enjoy a worldwide release. If Middle Eastern filmmaking has 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” and “Pulp Fiction,” there is none of Quentin Tarantino’s sensationalist gore in his autobiographical Lebanese Civil War drama.
Despite reservations, the director’s younger brother Rami Doueiri was cast as the film’s Truffaut-esque 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 soundtrack of legendary Lebanese diva Fayrouz — 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), it’s initially a lark: These hormone-charged, flare-wearing teens use the free time to dig for disco LPs, spy on girls, eat falafel, shoot Super 8 films and befriend a sultry Christian neighbor (Rola Al Amin), while gunshots, snipers and underground shelters punctuate life after dark.
Politics are never far from the frame — “Since when has the West understood the East?” asks Tarek’s lovable father with weary pathos — but, at its core, “West Beirut” is a charming, almost-nostalgic, coming-of-age tale, told with a sharp comedic edge and a native’s feel for the thrum of the streets.
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, and joy, of life continues.