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.
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The Independent Culture
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