Film: Full of Middle Eastern promise

Ziad Doueiri's debut movie is close to home. It's about teenagers living through a civil war in the country he fled from 15 years ago.

Abbas Kiarostami, the Makhmalbafs (father and daughter) and Jaffar Panahi, have won the caravan of Middle Eastern cinema a band of devoted followers. Intimate in scale and predominantly lyrical in tone, this Iranian- led resurgence in Arab film, it's safe to say, is not after the American multiplex market. However, for Ziad Doueiri, an effervescent 36-year- old Lebanese director armed with his debut feature West Beirut, the judgement of a US audience offers an important benchmark: "To me, if the Americans can understand West Beirut then the whole world can understand it."

In Doueiri's highly autobiographical film, Arab teenager Tarek and his friends Omar and May, a Christian girl, come of age in the late Seventies against the backdrop of the Lebanese civil war. For the most part, the three of them take advantage of the disruption to their humdrum lives, fooling around with Omar's cine-camera in the capital's pock-marked streets. It's the telling of this familiar tale that distinguishes it, however. The plot arises from the trio's wanderings, and the specifics of the Muslim- Christian conflict are reduced to a distant, though palpable, threat. The influence of John Boorman's Hope And Glory is apparent, as is another of Doueiri's heroes, Francois Truffaut, in the rough-hewn, documentary quality of the film's appearance and rhythm.

This wry, instinctual cinema is the work of an exile, however. Doueiri and his family fled war-torn Beirut for California in 1983. There, the 20-year-old trained as a cameraman, working on all of Quentin Tarantino's films. Though Doueiri says he conceived of West Beirut a long time ago, by his own admission he had no interest in returning to Lebanon until 1997. Apart from the usual attraction of autobiographical material, what prompted Doueiri to make his first feature about a homeland he'd by and large ignored for the past 15 years? A sort of catharsis? "I was too busy, working all the time on movies and I never felt it was the time for me to come back. To answer your question, is it a psychological healing? - it's not."

Neither did Doueiri make West Beirut with a Lebanese audience foremost in his mind. "All I wanted was for this film to be bought by a distributor in the United States."

To that end, the personal stories of Tarek, his family and friends take precedence over the complex historical background to the civil war. However, "to make something an American would understand," as Doueiri puts it, sacrifices must have been made. "I did not compromise," he insists. "Sometimes, I had to put more work into simplifying the characters. And that worked to my advantage. Trying to be as universal as possible became a challenge."

Understandably, many Lebanese felt Doueiri, for 15 years absent from Beirut, was in no position to comment on the country's traumatic recent history. " `Who is this guy to come back and talk?' - I was told that many times. My answer was sometimes a little bit harsh. I said, `If you have a different vision, go and make your own movie.' "

Of course, Doueiri's CV is studded with the names of Hollywood players like Joe Dante, connections few other Lebanese film-makers could match. Doueiri may only have had $1.2m to make, in effect, a civil war period drama but, privileged as he is, should he not have made a more definitive statement about Lebanese history?

"A lot of people who left the Lebanon at the same time that I left have been able to releate to the story a lot. And there are others who say: `You dealt with the subject in a very light manner - the war was a lot more complex than that.' But I was not talking about how things were; I was talking about how I saw things back there - I was chasing after girls the entire time."

In support of its positive reception, Doueiri points to West Beirut's box office success in Lebanon, where it played for six months. He even believes that his light, subjective treatment of a highly emotive topic tapped into a collective amnesia in the Lebanese as they set about rebuilding their capital. "It's a bit shallow, but it's normal that after years of war people don't want to deal with it, they just want to go and party. West Beirut was a lot of laughter with a little bit of historical reference, like a ringing of the bell."

Doueiri's pursuit of the American market is motivated not just by sound business sense but also the desire of an adopted American to revise the Hollywood stereotypes of Arabs. "In all US films, the Arabs are portrayed as the bad guys, just as the communists were, the Vietnamese, the `American Indians'..."

Doueiri's second feature, which he's currently writing, develops this critical stance further still. Exasperated by America's cack-handed relations with the Middle East, an unconventional journalist announces on national television that he'll resolve the State Department's foreign policy problems with the Arabs in a couple of weeks. He then does just that with a lightning tour of the region - "the journalist is a surfer dude from Malibu but he's very knowledgeable about the Middle East." It sounds like Hal Ashby's Being There rewritten by Naom Chomsky. "[The screenplay] is very critical towards American foreign policy which has become very arrogant," says Doueiri.

He admits, however, that America's part in Nato's intervention in the Kosovo crisis has thrown him into a quandary. "I never thought that America would bomb a Christian country like Yugoslavia and protect a Muslim population like the Kosovars. I always thought that America would go to war with Arabs much more easily - until 24 March when all my beliefs were ransacked."

After an hour in which he has detailed his strategy for cracking the American market, Doueiri finally admits that he's bewildered by the country he thought he'd come to know well. "I called my producer and I said, `I'm very confused.' And he says, `So are two hundred million other Arabs.' "

West Beirut opens on 23 July

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'