A Visual Memory

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Set in 1975, West Beirut recreates the initial stages of Lebanon’s civil war through the experiences of three teenagers: Muslim friends Tarek and Omar, and the Christian neighbor May, not that religion or politics concern them very much. Tarek is more preoccupied with pop, sex, smoking and his beloved cine camera. Indeed, the division of Beirut into Christian-controlled East and Muslim West is simply an excuse to skip school. The three of them have several adventures in the chaotic streets patrolled by Muslim militias.

Tarek’s parents deeply disturbed by the conflict, and left without an immediate prospect of an income argue constantly. His mother wants to leave the city; his father insists they will stay and see the crisis through, and tempers fray easily and arguments break out. But for Tarek and Omar life has grown more pleasurable, not less, and this, the happy and blinkered self-absorption of adolescence, is the subject of Ziad Doueiri’s marvelous ode to youthful friendship and coming of age during the beginning of a civil war that would ravage this country for 15 years.

I love this movie for so many reasons. Beautifully depicting in a melancholic poetry Beirut’s journey during the turmoil years where gunfire can be counted on to punctuate everything. As always, it’s grounding in specific reality that makes something ring universally true.

What haunted me long after I’ve seen West Beirut is the odd mixture of beauty and sadness that seems to characterize every face. It’s as though the Lebanese have had their troubles etched into their eyes. The ravages of a civil war don’t end with a peace agreement. In the end, the movie illustrates the continuing plight of the Lebanese people. The movie gradually shows its hero coming of age while war destroys all the ordinariness in this teen-ager’s life. Omar and Tarek no longer have a childhood; too much has happened to change their lives. As the rubble piles up, the streets grow more dangerous and the kindly local grocer has to cope with a desperate bread line, life slowly becomes intolerable. West Beirut registers these changes in a humane, dutiful fashion but there’s no mistaking the grief at the heart of its story.

In this cross-cultural gem, Tarek and his family just like us who lived through the war, struggle to keep their souls alive in the midst of war. His parents, just like mine, watch in dismay as their city becomes a battleground and its citizens are caught in the crossfire. And Tarek, just like me, who unlike his parents has not been through something like this before, alternates between facades of nonchalance and determined bravery. In the end, his sobs reveal the depth of what this family, and the Lebanese, has lost.

Ziad Doueiri once said ”I wasn’t born with fear; I acquired it.” It is so true of this war bred generation. As Tarek sobs at the end of the movie for the loss of his mother, one can’t help but sob for familiar stories that mirror this bitter reality. This movie is an ode to this city, to its beauty, to its people, to our parents, to our generation, to its struggles, to everything we’ve lost, and our spirit that fights to live on. This movie is for my Lebanon, a land ravaged by its own people in a savage war game, moving through endless times of unrest, and yet loved, loved by so many for so many reasons. This movie is for us; the ones who survived it and who still bare the cross of its cruelty.

This is a short clip of the movie:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2nmNRW4mQ0

3 thoughts on “A Visual Memory

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