CFS wants you to visit “West Beirut”

Chris Sawby

Filmmaker Ziad Doueiri, who has been labeled the “Middle Eastern Quentin Tarantino,” hails from Beirut, a city known as “the Paris of the Mideast” before it was torn apart by civil war. Despite those comparisons and critical praise that likens Doueiri’s directorial debut, “West Beirut,” to a combination of “Saturday Night Fever,” “Rumble Fish,” and “Welcome to Sarajevo,” Doueiri’s style is completely original. Set in Beirut at the onset of the bitter civil war, “West Beirut” is unique in the way it portrays the typical personal struggles of adolescence – especially as personified by the main character, a teenaged boy named Tarek – within an extraordinarily tumultuous setting.

This may not sound like a textbook Hollywood comedy, but Doueiri’s characters confront their shattered existence with wisecracks and levity. Tarek (played by Rami Doueri, the director’s younger brother) and his friends aren’t much different from their American counterparts during that era. They wear bell-bottoms, shoot amateur movies on a super-8 camera, listen to Western music and live in a middle-class section of Beirut where civil war seems almost as ridiculous and surreal as it would to Philadelphia residents. For them, the war is merely a backdrop to their adolescent antics, which include mischiefmaking during a school assembly and spinning sexual fantasies.

Doueiri confesses that the movie is mostly autobiographical, and quips, “Muslims, Christians, Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians – just keeping the factions straight required an advanced degree in Middle Eastern politics.” By his own admission, it took more than two years of fighting and the murder of his cousin by a sniper, for him to realize the gravity of the civil war in which Lebanon was mired.

Doueiri came to America in 1983 and studied at San Diego State University before finally landing a job as cameraman on dozens of films, including all of Quentin Tarantino’s pictures. Later, having decided to make a movie in his native Beirut, he went home with a meager $800,000 operating budget provided by France, Norway and Belgium.

His homecoming proved enlightening, however. Expecting to see the town in ruins, he was surprised to find Beirut so well rebuilt that it was necessary to re-demolish a whole city block in order to lend wartime realism to the film’s landscapes.

He was also taken aback that local government officials, from whom he had expected resistance, threatened no censorship or interference. Doueiri believes that this attitude signals an official effort to resurrect the city’s reputation as a Middle Eastern cultural hub.

“West Beirut” is the third film in the Spring 2005 Cultural Films Series, the theme of which is “Loss of Innocence/Growth of Awareness.” Show times in the Villanova Cinema are Saturday, Feb. 19 at 7 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 20 at 3:30 and 7 p.m., and Monday, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m.. This week’s Monday -night-only guest speaker is Nasser Chour, who is a graduate of the American University in Beirut and teaches in Villanova Communication Department. Tickets are $3.50 with student ID, $5 for the general public.