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[whitespace] Rami Doueiri, Mohamad Chamas
Schooled by War: Rami Doueiri (left) and Mohamad Chamas survive the dangers of a divided city in Ziad Doueiri's 'West Beirut.'

Divided City

'West Beirut' highlights annual Arab Film Festival

By Richard von Busack

I WONDER IF the phrase "downtown Beirut" is still slang for any disaster area, from a city slum to a kid's messy room. (It was once a popular enough phrase that there was a bar named Downtown Beirut in New York's Bowery.) Ziad Doueiri's film West Beirut has an intimidating title, foretelling destruction and the peculiarly savage tragedies of a civil war. Yet West Beirut--one of the eight films showing at the Towne Theater as part of 1999's Arab Film Festival--is an often-funny story about teenage naughtiness amid the collapse of the Mediterranean city in the late '70s.

Tarek Noveri (Rami Doueiri) is the only son of an affluent Europeanized family. When the war breaks out between Muslims and Christians in the city, Beirut is cleaved in half. At first, Tarek treats the war as an adventure. As in John Boorman's Hope and Glory, the fighting and bombing are a relief from hated school. Later, the privation and the enforced idleness unleash misery both on Tarek and on his short, quarrelsome friend Omar (Mohamad Chamas). West Beirut demonstrates that an adolescent's fancies can't be interrupted even by a war. The episodic film includes such Porky's-style incidents as the boys' spying on Omar's uncle's splendid mistress. Tarek also visits, by accident, a legendary brothel run by a gruff, Lionel Stander-ish madam named Oum Walid (Leila Karam) who is trying to keep her business alive amid the fighting. (Snipers won't shoot at those who are headed to the bordello ... as long as they wave a brassiere as if it were a white flag.)

At one point, Tarek is grousing about how music is forbidden by the new pious spirit of the Palestinian militiamen. Omar tells him that in the new divided Beirut, all music is forbidden as suggestive, except for Umm Kulthoum. "Umm Kulthoum?! All she sings is sex!" Tarek roars. The voice of the beloved Egyptian singer returns in Far From You, director Sami Alkasim's 16mm film about her home, Cairo (Sept. 11, 2:15pm). Two more films about Egypt: Date Wine, making its Bay Area premiere, is Redouane El-Kashef's film about small-town life in rural Egypt (Sept. 13, 9pm); and the epic Destiny (1997) by Youssef Chahine, about one of the greatest minds the Middle Ages produced, Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averroës. He was the philosopher whose commentaries on Aristotle were considered definitive for centuries; he was also the physician who discovered the function of the retina. Unfortunately, Averroës was persecuted by the religious bigots that, then as now, torment the Islamic faith.

The Third Annual Arab Film Festival takes place Sept. 9, 11 and 13 at the Towne Theater in San Jose. 'West Beirut' shows Sept. 9 at 9pm. (415/564-1100 or www.aff.org)

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From the September 9-15, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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