The film, West Beirut, was directed by Ziad Doueiri, a Lebanese citizen, and chronicles the events of the Lebanese Civil War through the eyes of three teenagers who lived in the city of West Beirut. At the beginning of the war, Tarek and Omar have fun during the chaos, regarding the event as an adventure. They film planes falling out of the sky, fantasize about women together, and are happy that school has been canceled indefinitely. Even the consent bombing of their neighborhood does not bring their spirits down. Meanwhile, Tarek’s father and mother argue whether they should leave or stay in Lebanon. Tarek ends up meeting and befriending an orphan Christian girl named May and together with Omar, they travel to East Beirut to get their role of film developed. Their plan are thwarted when they could not enter East Beirut because two of the boys were not Christians. So they return back home, still as carefree as ever and the two boys join a protest the next day. The protest ends in gunfire and as the protesters fled, Tarek hides in a cab and is accidentally driven into East Beirut. There he spends time in Madam Oum Walid’s brothel and returns to home to show his friends the place. After risking their lives to arrive there, they are shortly kicked out of the brothel and return back home. Tarek contemplates about war and he admits to Omar that he finally realizes the hardship of war. With his family running out of money and jobless, Tarek understands that war is no longer fun and games. The film ends with Tarek’s mother gone from view, her fate unknown.
The film deals with several themes. The most obvious is the theme of the horrors of war. The very first opening scene is one where a jet is shot out of the sky and shortly after, there is a scene where members of a Christian militia shoot down a bus full of Palestinians. There are two transitions between scenes that depict actual news clips of the Lebanese Civil War. They serve as a reminder that even though the characters are having fun, war is still raging around them. The scenery that the teenagers traverse into is littered with debris and torn buildings. Just as the characters are lulled into a false sense of security, something dangerous slaps them in the face. The shooting on the peaceful protest, the constant bombings, the conflict between parents, and the divide between East and West Beirut finally are all brought together at the end of the movie as the consequences of war. The war ages all of the characters, especially Tarek. The finally blow to his childhood and innocence is the lost of his mother. War had destroyed his family; life as he knew it in Beirut is forever shattered.
There is also the theme of religion in West Beirut. Tarek and Omar are both Muslim but they are not very religious. In one scene, Tarek even admits that he had never even opened the Koran. However as the war progresses, Omar’s family become increasingly religious and the changes make Omar uncomfortable. Religion is one way that the people of Beirut use to cope with the horrors of war. Religion, of course, also plays a large part in the division between East and West Beirut. Christians belong to the East, while Muslims belong to the West. If either one crosses into the wrong territory, they can be shot and killed. So in the case of May, being on the wrong side of Beirut means she must hide her Christian identity, the cross around her neck, to survive. Religion in the film is both a coping mechanism and dangerous label to the people of Beirut.
Nationalism is also a large theme within the film. Lebanon was once a French mandate after WWI and later, Lebanon gained its independence in 1943. Remnants of that past still remain, such as the French school Tarek attends. However in the beginning of the film, the loyalty of the people is evident by Tarek interrupting the French anthem with the Lebanese one, causing the children to cheer in support. The theme of nationalism returns again when the baker that Tarek visits advises him to call himself Lebanese regardless of religious labels. Tarek’s father encourages his son to learn French history and literature, but Tarek thinks it is pointless to learn the information because it is not relevant to his life. However Tarek’s father also encourages his son to read Arab history and tells his son that Arab civilization was one of the greatest societies on earth and perhaps it will be once again. Nationalism in the film is used as an element of change within Lebanon. The younger generation, such as Tarek and Omar, are straying farther away from France and are embracing their national heritage as Lebanese Arabs.
The objective of the film was to show the events of the Lebanese Civil War through the eyes of its young characters. They have fun, but by the end of the film, they have lost their innocence because of the hardships of the war. The director paints a very sympathetic portrayal of the people of West Beirut, humanizing their flaws, dreams, fears, and joy.
The director wants the whole world to be his audience, which is why he included subtitles, but because the film is in Arabic, his target audience is Arabic speakers. He gives them a history of their past, shown in a humanizing light without casting Arabs as villains. The Lebanese Civil War was horrific, with 120,000 dead and leaving one million refugees in the process. But Ziad Doueiri humanizes those statistics, the faces that were on every news channel. He reminds his audience that everyone is human, regardless of their religion. That is what makes the film so compelling. It is realistic; you can empathize with the struggles of Tarek’s mother as she expresses her fear of staying in the city. You can sympathize with the baker who wants to feed his neighborhood. You can even sympathize with Madam Oum Walid, who is struggling to keep her business afloat during wartime. This humanizing aspect of people in times of war really makes the audience feel for those characters. Ziad Doueiri gives strength to each character and it shows in his film. The scenes of ruined buildings and the images shot though Tarek’s camera bring a gritty realism to a mostly light hearted adventure story. Hidden in-between the story of war, is the story of growing up. Tarek, Omar, and May became mature in the end, due to their struggles. It makes the audience wonder what will become of them after the war. Will their maturity save them or will the burden of war ultimately destroy them in the end?
- Jennifer L. Derr, “Precarious Lebanon” (Lecture, February 12, 2013, UC Santa Cruz).
- Jennifer L. Derr, “Lebanon as Proxy” (Lecture, February 19, 2013, UC Santa Cruz).
- Ziad Doueiri, West Beirut, directed by Ziad Doueiri (1998, Norway) Film.