Arabian knights

"West Beirut" director Ziad Douieri talks about growing up in the crossfire of a raging civil war and raging hormones.


Cynthia Joyce
September 9, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

He's been called the "Arab Tarantino," but 36-year-old director Ziad Doueiri resists comparisons to his tragically hip former colleague. (Doueiri worked as a cameraman on three of Tarantino's films.) Despite his Santa Monica address, penchant for Drum cigarettes and new status as a leading voice in foreign film, the UCLA film school graduate feels a tighter kinship to the likes of John Boorman, whose "Hope and Glory" inspired Douieri's own semi-autobiographical debut, the wonderful "West Beirut." "I kept thinking, 'I hope people don't think I plagiarized him,'" admitted Douieri during a recent interview in New York. "I was worried about that, big time."

Though there are obvious parallels between the two films, "West Beirut" is very much Douieri's own story. Set in 1975, when Beirut was divided into two territories (Christian and Muslim), his follows the carefree teenager Tarek (played by Doueiri's younger brother, Rami), through the chaos of civil war -- a situation which affords him a new freedom. Unfazed by the turmoil escalating around him, Tarek and his best friend Omar (Mohamad Chamas) continue their pursuit of girls and Super 8 film, and are only occasionally forced to confront the gravity of their circumstances -- like when Tarek witnesses, at the start of the war, the April 1975 massacre of a group of Palestinian bus riders by Christian Phalangists.

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Douieri is careful to keep the focus on Tarek, and puts such tragic scenes into high relief against the film's many lighter moments. Which partly explains why "West Beirut" -- the first Lebanese film ever to be picked up for U.S. distribution -- has been so enthusiastically received by audiences the world over, winning awards at both the Toronto and Cannes film festivals, as well being considered for a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination.

A lot has been made of the fact that even though you are Lebanese, and your film is clearly about Lebanon, this is a Western film -- did you set out to make a specifically "American" movie?

I wanted to make this film -- its citizenship does not matter. [Beirut] leaves a kind of a bad taste in the mouth -- it's always been associated with upheaval and terrorism and so forth, so people don't want to deal with it. It's a very misunderstood part of the world.

But I believed it could have an American market -- you just have to do it very strategically. You have to make it funny, you have to make it hip. You have to manipulate reality a little bit. I juggled with the facts.

Apparently that rankled some people's sensitivities in Lebanon.

You take an event and use it to your advantage in telling a story. It's not a documentary -- I have the right to do that.

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History is timeless in a way. You can do things from a distant perspective, or you can do things right away -- like "Welcome to Sarajevo" was done in the midst of the Bosnian war. I don't know what it takes for someone to decide the story is ripe. It was difficult convincing investors. Some said the story was too old, some said it was still too recent.

Since yours is the first Lebanese film ever to be seen in the U.S., did you feel any added burden of responsibility, in terms of getting the story right?

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I have a responsibility mainly to myself. It's important to please the public, and I do work with that very strategically -- you don't want to make a film that's only going to end up in a couple of festivals. During the writing, my mind did start wandering toward what my responsibility was ... but I didn't want to talk like some politician about "what I'm trying to do" -- it's too abstract for me. It just happens that this region that I came from, it's very colorful and stormy and conflicted.

Look, when I was growing up back here [in the U.S.] in the '80s, it was not cool being Lebanese. You kinda kept it low-key, because of all the terrorism and hijacking ... guys running around on TV with rotten teeth and long hair. So you lived with this stereotype in the back of your mind, and you try not to let it affect you. And then there's a denial period. For many years in San Diego and even in L.A., people would ask me where I was from, and I'd say "I'm Mediterranean." I did not want to say I was Lebanese. I was kind of embarrassed. It was not cool -- you couldn't get a date if you were Lebanese. And then I realized, that doesn't work. I am what I am. So mainly I have a responsibility toward myself, but I also have a responsibility toward my desires to tell a story, too.

How much of an influence did American culture have on you growing up in Beirut?

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We were mostly affected by America's arrogance. We were also affected by the movie industry -- the movies were broadly seen in Beirut. So that was our first contact with U.S. It was always a country we hated and loved most -- and now I've found that every country in the world feels the same way. Today, almost all the time, I'm constantly reexamining how I feel in America. Sometimes I flip out and lose my mind and think "This is a mad place. This is a crazy fucking place ..." I'm always thinking, can I live in a place where people are so greedy and abusive? It's probably the one most nagging question in my head. And then I do a leap of faith, and I find so many different elements that are interesting to me. Like being able to set a trend. You can't do that overseas that easily.

It's a sort of comparative literature, what I do -- between my life in America and my life overseas, between Europe and the Middle East. I've always felt like I have one leg there and one leg here and I can't seem to situate myself. Because American pop culture -- America itself -- is so dynamic and so rapidly changing that you have to keep at it to keep up.

You cast your brother as the lead, even though he'd had no prior acting experience. Will he continue pursuing an acting career?

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No, he went back to high school -- he's only 17. I cast him because I wrote the role thinking about him. It helps when you write dialogue to imagine someone saying the dialogue -- I started picturing my brother, because he has a sexy face, he's a handsome kid. And when I went to Beirut to start casting, I put him aside -- I didn't think he was the guy. I auditioned about 1500 guys over one year. But I kept coming back to him. The way he is on screen is the way he is in life -- he walks like that, his long arms swinging like a teenager's. He has this frivolousness, this lightness of being, which worked perfectly. I could put my past, my childhood, in his character.

The family dynamics do feel very true, very --

-- very democratic. That was how I grew up -- my family gave us a lot of room to express our opinion, and genuinely. My mother was running a secret radio station at that time, which was fighting against the occupation. The radio was buried two stories down in a mosque, so nobody knew where it was. My mom pretended to pray, and we would sneak in and go down the spiral stairs into a secret room.

So we grew up in secrecy -- don't open your mouth, because we could all be in jeopardy. But at the same time, my mom -- who today represents NOW and Doctors Without Borders as a lawyer -- would always push us to express our views. "You have to put yourself on the line" -- it was bred into us from since we were very young. She was pretty revolutionary at that time. So she had an incredible influence on my life. My dad was the wise guy. He was wise and quiet. The way you see it in the film is exactly how my parents are.

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The absurdity of war is presented very craftily through her character -- she is always walking a fine line between being in control and losing it altogether.

When you are writing a film, or when you start a drama and you are building an intense point, you don't end it intensely. You can build up your audience, but you gotta let go of the tension by airing it out, finishing with some humor. So every time she's about to break down and tries to take off, they get into an accident and laugh about it: "Mom, you drive like Steve McQueen. Just relax a bit, you're gonna kill us all." When you go into the bomb shelter, you follow it with the fat woman breaking a glass. It's a strategy -- you cannot make "Three Days of the Condor" or "All the President's Men" anymore. They were cool movies in the '70s, and it required some brainstorming. Today, we're a light culture. You have to pass some messages through with a lot of humor and lightness.

You've mentioned "Hope and Glory" as an early influence -- are there other films that have been as influential?

Too many to mention. When I was in high school at the French school, part of our curriculum was to study and discuss film -- the last year, you had to study Kubrick and Bergman. The French consider film an art, not an entertainment. Sometimes I think they went a little too far on the discussing part ... what's that phrase, "extracting the flea out of the hair"? The French have a tendency toward intellectual masturbation. But I did get to see a lot of films.

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Now that you'll be able to afford real actors, who would you most like to work with?

If there's one guy I'd love to work with, it's Gene Hackman. He looks like my dad. But he's a great actor. And if I could work with any actress, I'd choose Gena Rowlands. And if I wanted to make a sex film with somebody? Meg Ryan.

Really, Meg Ryan?

I want to see her take her clothes off. I'm tired of her always being Ms. Nice Girl -- I want to see her get laid.

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Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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