War of the Worlds
Tarek's response? Whatever fear he feels, he expresses as anger at his mother. She doesn't hurry to the school fast enough to pick him up. When the mother (Carmen Lebbos), driving him home, retorts that the city is in chaos, Tarek also converts the attack into a platform for pride. Nobody knows what's happening, his mother says; to which Tarek replies firmly, "I know." And by the next morning, a new emotion has taken hold: elation. Civil war means no more school!
Now Tarek can spend his days hanging out with Omar, smoking cigarettes and listening to American pop music, and making clandestine movies of Omar's beautiful aunt. He can run up a tab with the avuncular owner of the local bakery and sandwich shop (Mahmoud Mabsout); and he can flirt with a new neighbor, May (Rola Al Amin)--a dangerous flirtation, since this pretty refugee from the south is a Christian. Omar does not approve of her. He understands, even if Tarek does not, that the situation is serious, and it's better not to be seen with this nun, this Virgin Mary.
With that, civil war opens the first crack in Tarek's world, threatening to separate him from his friend--a rupture that's the adolescent version of the tension between Tarek's parents. His mother wants to leave Beirut at once, while his father (Joseph Bou Nassar), grave and principled and utterly ineffectual, insists on staying put. It's the politically responsible thing to do, he says, in a voice deep with experience. Besides, he can't figure out where to go.
Doueiri has made his living as a camera operator and camera assistant (working for Quentin Tarantino, among others); and now that he's tried directing, he turns out to have a well-developed manner of storytelling. He mingles those casual-seeming, handheld shots with bigger, more choreographed scenes (a street demonstration and its ensuing battle, for example) and with montage sequences of newsreel footage, so that the intimacy of West Beirut sometimes opens into a bigger world, and days in their isolation blend into years. I admired the unforced complexity of Doueiri's technique; but more than that, I admired the emotional complexity of his characters.
At the heart of West Beirut is a teenager who can imagine that the civil war, on the streets and at home, is somehow his doing--that his prank became a massacre, that his longed-for freedom is being paid for with mourning. Doueiri touches on these feelings lightly, but deeply. I suspect there's an entire generation in Lebanon that will recognize itself in Tarek. As for those of us who have not gone through such experiences: West Beirut reminds us that the young people who live through civil war are the Other, but they're also only a few yards away.