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The Boston Phoenix Children's Hour

The kids are all right in "West Beirut"

By Jumana Farouky

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  War is arguably the ultimate test of the human spirit, and somehow children tend to fare better in times of war than adults. Is that because of their innocence? Their naïveté? Their imagination? Or some other survival secret that eventually becomes buried under the trials of adulthood? This is the question Ziad Doueiri explores in his semi-autobiographical West Beirut (in Arabic, with English subtitles), in which he follows two young friends, Tarek (Rami Doueiri, the director's younger brother) and Omar (Mohamad Chamas), as their lives are swallowed by the Lebanese civil war.

Beirut is suddenly split in two, with the Christians controlling the East and forcing the Muslims to live in the West. The day before their school shuts down, the children stop their activity in the playground to wave at two East Beirut planes patrolling the skies. When one of the planes is shot down, the children -- mostly Muslims -- cheer and Omar captures the explosion on his Super-8 camera, which he carries everywhere. In grainy, soundless black-and-white, the planes look like birds swooping through the sky, and the explosion is no more horrific than a flare. The image of the war seen through the eyes of children is one of the first in the film, and with it Doueiri instantly transforms war into an adventure to experience, not something to fear.

At first the boys are unaffected by the events going on around them. Tarek is happy to have his father home more often (in a refreshing change from the dysfunctional family antics obsessively presented by American moviemakers, this father and son greet each other with smiles and good-natured wrestling matches), not realizing that his father is home only because he's lost his job. An unremitting joker, Tarek cheers his mother up by pretending to love sardine sandwiches (the young Doueiri's mischievous grin is infectious), unaware that soon sardines will be the only meat his family can afford.

As the year progresses, the boys increasingly find themselves caught in the middle of mini-battles as once-friendly neighbors begin to turn on each other. But full realization of the casualties of war comes only when it's time to develop the film the boys have been shooting (which includes, in one of the many perfectly placed comic moments, a sneak peek at the ample bosom of Omar's uncle's young wife). Only one store in Beirut still processes Super-8 film, and that store now sits in the forbidden Olive section of the East. While Tarek and Omar discuss ways of getting through, police start firing into a group of protesters and Tarek crawls into the back seat of a parked car for safety. The car drives away, and when it finally stops, Tarek finds himself at the heart of the Olive section, in a famous brothel. The prostitutes treat him like a favorite younger brother, and the cheerful brothel mother seems to be the only adult not completely consumed by the war.

Tarek is interested in sex only as fantasy. What draws him to the brothel is the color, the music, the laughter, all the things now missing from his life in the West. The next time he visits the brothel, he brings along Omar and a new friend, May, the beautiful Christian girl who moved into his building just before the war began. Omar, more sensitive to the religious tension in the city (his father, once a satisfied non-practicing Muslim, now insists his family pray and his wife wear a veil), refuses to accept May as an ally, spitefully calling her "Virgin Mary." (Chamas plays the neurotic smart-ass as expertly as many actors four times his age.) Tarek hopes the warmth he feels at the brothel will neutralize the effects of the war among his friends, but the brothel mother promptly kicks them out -- fights have recently broken out between her Muslim and Christian customers, as it seems even a bed is no longer free of religion. In an attempt at peace unparalleled by the adults surrounding her, May gives Omar the gold cross she wears around her neck, and when he adds it to the chain holding his gold Koran pendant, the symbol of unity is as touching as it is glaring. Still, Tarek now has nowhere to escape from the war, and his jokes make way for tears as he finally realizes the seriousness of the situation.

In more melodramatic hands, West Beirut could have been a forceful tear-jerker designed to make half the audience feel helpless and the other half feel guilty. But by taking the focus away from the obvious tragedy and instead celebrating the small joys that offer brief relief from the stresses of war, Doueiri demands from his audience attention without pity, understanding without anger. May slipping into a piano shop to play her favorite piece for the first time since her widowed mother banned music from their home; Tarek and Omar releasing a single, tiny firecracker into the eerily quiet night sky; Tarek's father relishing the taste of the first batch of strawberries from his farm. There are the moments when everyday beauty, usually taken for granted during times of peace, overshadows the bullets and the bombs. And the little things that fascinate children all the time will, for now, give adults the strength to survive.

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