Sounds awful, but Doueiri, who was 12 when the fighting began in 1975, brings a slightly different perspective to the conflict in his 1999 feature film West Beirut, which is screening this Sunday at 2 p.m. in Room 109 of Union South as part of the Wisconsin Union Directorate's International Cinema series. A coming-of-age story that makes more than a passing nod to the early films of FranÃois Truffaut, West Beirut introduces us to Tarek (Rami Doueiri, the director's younger brother), a bellbottomed teenager who resembles Antoine Doinel--Truffaut's alter ego in The 400 Blows, Love at Twenty, etc.--in every way, even physically. A class cutup at the lycÃe he attends, Tarek gets himself sent out in the hall for replacing the French national anthem with the Lebanese, and it's from that vantage point that he witnesses a gang of masked militiamen ambushing a bus, the war's opening shots. Other kids might be traumatized by such a sight. Tarek's only thought: No school tomorrow.
Or the next day. Or the next. For Tarek and his best friend, Omar (Mohamad Chamas), the war is something between a minor annoyance and a major gas. The major gas is that they now have a whole lot of time to listen to records, dance, smoke cigarettes, ogle women and shoot Super-8 films. The minor annoyance is that the only place capable of developing their films lies just on the other side of the Great Divide. Doueiri, who based Tarek on himself, allows the movie to find its own rhythms, and we're supposed to realize that war isn't the only thing raging in Tarek's life. So are hormones. Soon, he and Omar are joined by May (Rola Al Amin), who sets a Jules and Jim triangle in motion. Both boys are interested in May, but neither of them knows quite what to do with her--especially Omar, who's worried about the cross she wears around her neck. That two Muslims could even associate with a Christian is a testament to both the blindness of youth and the unpredictability of war.
As for the rest of Beirut, it dissolves into factions within factions, finally pitting neighbor against neighbor. Doueiri may have meant this to be a gradual process. In fact, I've read that the story is stretched over eight years, but you could have fooled me. Neither Tarek nor Omar seems to age a day until close to the end, when they're suddenly tired of the game they've been playing and wish it would stop. "I miss school," Tarek says, and you know the fighting has finally taken its toll. Meanwhile, Tarek's parents, beautifully etched by Carmen Lebbos and Joseph Bou Nassar, have been waging a civil war of their own, Tarek's mother begging Tarek's father to leave Beirut behind, Tarek's father refusing to believe that their lives are crumbling around them. To his credit, Doueiri invests all his characters with such a zest for life that we too have trouble believing their lives are being destroyed by a war that none of them want and few of them seem to understand.