Issue 233 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Dir: Ziad Doueiri
Some cinema guides, in their inimitable fashion, have dubbed West Beirut a rite of passage movie by Quentin Tarantino's cameraman. Others have described it as Huckleberry Finn meets Norman Mailer. It is much more than that, and richly deserves its clutch of seven international film awards.
West Beirut is the powerful first feature film by Ziad Doueiri, who was born in Lebanon in 1963 and left 20 years later to go to film school in the United States before graduating to Quentin Tarantino's film unit. Doueiri's teenage years coincided with the eruption of bloody civil war that ripped the country apart. His film is largely autobiographical, following the adventures of two Muslim boys, Tarek and Omar, and May, a Christian girl.
The film starts with a graphic portrayal of the 1975 massacre of Palestinian bus passengers by the Phalange, a fascist Christian militia, which launched the civil war, and is punctuated by the events of the next eight years. We see the partition of Beirut into warring zones, the arrival of Syrian peacekeepers, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1978, followed by the arrival of UN peacekeepers. There are snatches of footage of the second Israeli invasion of 1982, which sees the Palestine Liberation Organisation driven from its bases in Lebanon, and the massacre by the Phalange of over 1,000 Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps.
Nevertheless, Doueiri says the film is not really a story of war. It's the story of children learning about life. 'I opted to show the pressure of the war increasing progressively,' he said. 'The burden marks the children, especially Tarek. At first he is naive, nonchalant, clumsy. But little by little he learns how serious the situation is.'
Doueiri has told western film critics, 'It took a good ten years until I could rationally look back on what happened to me growing up in Beirut. By 1993 I was far enough removed from the trauma of war to remember the good parts. The happy memories have cancelled the bad ones.'
In reality, Doueiri's great achievement is to use humour and the universal nature of teenage emotion and experiences to show the complexity and ambiguity of civil war, as well as its horror.
The film is Doueiri's homage to the Lebanese people and their struggle to survive against the odds. An understanding of the main issues, if not the details, of Middle East politics, is a help in uncovering West Beirut's richness. Nevertheless, West Beirut has much to say to general European and American audiences as well, offering powerful insights into the behaviour of people whose world is ripped apart by forces beyond their control.
Ça Commence Aujourd'hui (It All Starts Today)
Dir: Bertrand Tavernier
Set against the background of an infants' school in an ex-mining town in Northern France, Tavernier's film shows the desperate struggle of the headteacher, Daniel, his staff and the local social workers against the mayor, the school inspectors and the business committees with the light of market forces and profits in their eyes.
In this area of massive unemployment with many families with absentee fathers working long distance truck driving, the odds are stacked against this school. Their efforts are undermined by the hunger, poverty and depression rife in this exhausted community wholly preoccupied with keeping from going under.
Tavernier is under no illusions about the so called partnership between the teachers and their employer, the education authority, which is constantly cutting costs by the withdrawal of poverty payments, cutting off electricity and inhibiting proper debates about the underfunding in schools like this one. At every stage, the state undermines and compromises all efforts to provide a solid beginning to the educational lives of these children.
This is a school where the head has to feed the children to make sure they come to school, and this in an ex-mining community once working flat out producing power for towns and cities. This is a school which has to attend the funeral of a parent with her two children because she took them with her in her suicide, undermined by the authorities who made such a song and dance about the support structures in place for her 'and her kind'.
This is a school which has to clean up after a mindless break-in. The pictures the children drew the day before were strewn all over the floor. This school has to pick itself up every time such things happen because it has been set adrift, cast away by authorities whose beady eyes rest not on the blackboard but on the smart watches of the business community. We can hear the subtext beneath all the committee meetings clearly. 'When we invest, we want our money back. That's not going to happen if we put money into the education of this hopeless community.'
A powerful antidote to this poison comes through the voiced-over thoughts of Daniel expressed in poetry about an imaginative, emotional, powerful way of being.
At the end of one long afternoon, Daniel and the children play a word game. 'Without seeing, I don't exist; without talking, I don't exist; without thinking, I don't exist; without doing je n'existe pas,' they sing back and forth. 'I don't exist if I don't act.' The children understood that better than anyone.
The War Zone
Dir: Tim Roth
Adapted from Alexander Stuart's book of the same name, Tim Roth's directorial debut is a subtler work than the novel upon which it is based. Stuart's book came at the tail end of a trend for abjection and incest as rite of passage (Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden and Iain Banks's Walking on Glass) and topped them all. Roth's work also comes in the wake of a cinematic mini-genre of incestuous films--Seul Contre Tous, Festen and Happiness the best known.
Roth, however, settles for understatement. He doesn't want to top filmmaking colleagues--he wants first and foremost to create a suffocating environment for his characters. After all, it isn't until halfway through the film that we witness the older sister (Lara Belmont) and father (Ray Winstone) having sex. The hints prior, a bathroom scene which the 15 year old brother is privy to but which we do not see, and some polaroids of the nude sister, lead the viewer to suspect a form of sexual abuse, but, unlike the book, the film doesn't play up sexual debasement.
While the film is obviously about incest, it's nevertheless equally about the enclosed familial arena Roth creates. Set in deepest Devon, Roth's film rarely allows for anything but dull colours and overcast skies. In the off white, square cottage where the family live there's a sense of huddle as the wind howls and the rain spatters. Roth seems to be using the house as if to emphasise the sense of fatherly betrayal. The father has not only removed his family from the capital (all of whom would rather be in London), not only spends most of his time on the phone with his back to his family (a recurring image in the film), but also wrecks the family unit by the defilement of his daughter.
In Stuart's book there are key differences. The weather is so pleasant the mum sunbathes in a bikini; the father isn't a small time businessman constantly on the phone, but an architect with options. The book suggests incest alone destroys the family. For Roth, this is a family who've been abused in various, less obvious ways: the rape less a shocking violation than the general patriarchal power trip given a specific focus.
Hence the understatement. It is a general cliche to say that families are destroyed by an act of sexual abuse, that whatever the parental decency the fissure goes deeper than any compensating niceties. This was more or less the book's theme. It can also be a useful narrative device to allow for surprise: if the father's an ogre, where's the revelation? The audience can see it coming.
Roth's film 'lacks' that sense of surprise, replacing it instead with a sense of the inevitable. Roth may have said that the father is a 'normal' man on the surface, he's not violent or from a deprived background, but the way Winstone orders his son and daughter around, and the way he seems to show so little interest in their lives indicate a willingness to turn them into objects--and by extension the daughter into a sexual one.
Roth's film isn't about sexual abuse as a paedophilia impulse or the last resort for a man with nothing to live for, as in Happiness and Seul Contre Tous respectively. Nor is it a series of prurient horrors. The film's distinctiveness lies in the way it deals with the institution of the family and shows the available abuses within it. And it also hints at why such abuses might well continue down the line.