'West Beirut': Coming of age in a time of war
September 22, 1999
NEW YORK (CNN) -- It's 1975, bell-bottoms are flaring, Abba is blaring -- it basically looks like "Saturday Night Fever" in Lebanon. But the teen-agers at the center of Ziad Doueiri's film, "West Beirut," are coming of age during the beginning of a civil war that would ravage their country for 15 years.
The 36-year-old writer-director says the film is essentially autobiographical. "When the war started," Doueiri says, "it took about a year and a half to two years -- actually, it took up until the death of one of my cousins, who was shot by a sniper -- for us to start realizing that this thing is serious."
Doueiri says he left Beirut in 1983 on a "one-way ticket." He traveled to California, where he studied film at San Diego State. Eventually, he connected with Quentin Tarantino, who gave him a job as a cameraman in some of his films, including "Reservoir Dogs" (1992) and "Pulp Fiction" (1994).
A few years later, Doueiri was ready to stake his own claim with the Arabic-language "West Beirut." With financial backing from France, Belgium and Norway, he returned to Lebanon to shoot on location. His first task: Finding actors among the locals.
While he entertained the thought of casting his kid brother Rami as the lead (Tarek), Doueiri didn't want to be accused of nepotism, so he had a "huge" casting call. But he kept coming back to his 16-year-old brother. Doueiri says Rami had the right demeanor, a nonchalance about life, that he liked. "The role was written for him," Doueiri says.
The filmmaker also cast first-time actors to play Tarek's Muslim best friend, Omar, and Christian neighbor, May.
Government a help, not a hindrance
When Doueiri returned to Beirut, he expected to see the city strewn with wartime damage and destruction. But that wasn't the case. He says the city has become so built up, he actually had to destroy a street to make it authentic for the film. Doueiri did all this on what he called a "microscopic budget" of $800,000.
While Doueiri had to deal with the headaches of novice actors, budget constraints and location issues, he did not have to butt heads with the Lebanese government. Instead of hindering production, he says, officials cooperated completely and did not censor his film.
"I think they wanted to encourage artists," Doueiri says. "The Lebanese government is trying to improve its public image by saying that 'we are democratic.' They don't want to give the image that people cannot go back and express their point of views, whatever they are."
"West Beirut" has won prizes at the 1998 Cannes and Toronto film festivals. It's being released this week in the United States, where Doueiri hopes the film will find a warm reception.
"It's the first Lebanese film ever done in the States," Doueiri says, "and I hope that the word of mouth will spread quickly, giving a positive impression about the Middle East, actually -- that we're not all savages, we're not all terrorists or 'camel jockeys,' or whatever that comes with it."
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