30 March 2010

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Throughout the MyWar exhibition, FACT will be publishing guest blog posts from looking at war and politics in the media. Matthew Taylor is a "twentysomething lawyer with interests in arts, music, philosophy, politics, and sci/tech..."
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From the window of the French school, a boy sent from class for clowning around watches masked men setting up an ambush. A bus comes slowly down the road towards them, slowing to a halt at an intersection. The men creep forward; the boy watches intently. Then the men open fire on the passengers in the bus.
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It is 13 April, 1975.
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The opening scenes of Ziad Doueiri's film, West Beirut, make his teenage protagonist, Tarek, an eye witness to the Bus Massacre, the final piece in the jigsaw of events that led to the Lebanese Civil War. They also set the tone for the intriguing blend of fact and fiction that the director uses to tell this semi-autobiographical tale. 13 April was a Sunday; there was no school. The Bus Massacre was retaliation for a drive by shooting at a church service that morning so there was no school. Tarek himself is played by Rami Doueiri, the director's brother, the school seen in those open sequences is his (the Grand Lycee Franco-Libanais in Beirut) and it is the younger brother's untutored, naturalistic performance which carries the film.
 
After those opening scenes, the film does not dwell on specific events of the Civil War, other than in brief montages of archive film. The focus is on the lives of people who are simply trying to carry on amidst the fighting, not to join it. This is never better expressed than when Tarek and his friend Omar are swept up in a demonstration in memory of "Kemel", killed in the fighting. They gleefully join in, one asking the other "Who is Kemel?" They neither know, nor care - happy simply to enjoy the experience.
 
What unfolds across the course of the film is a classic coming of age story. Tarek, a more naive Ferris Bueller, rebels while he can; like Bueller, trying to avoid the reality of a life which is to change forever. With his friend Omar, and new neighbour May, he faces imminent threats from armed militias and night time shelling, and finds that trying to have Omar's 8mm home movies means crossing the front line - where the militia guards may kill them because May is a Christian, or simply because they do not have papers.
 
As the three teenagers explore the playground of war torn Beirut, their families are transformed. Tarek's mother, a lawyer, finds herself without work and desperate to leave Beirut, terrified of what might happen to her family if they stay. His father, by contrast, refuses to leave, at least partly out of concern about the way his wife and son would be treated in other countries. Omar's father greets the religious conflict by vigorously embracing Islam, a response his son neither understands nor welcomes, and Papa Snake, a local militia leader who the boys had previously idolised, becomes a violent and demanding oppressor to the people he claims to protect.
 
In some ways, Doueiri's own story was even more dramatic than Tarek's: his mother ran an underground radio station, placing herself and her family at great risk. The director would later tell an interviewer that she "...would always push us to express our views - 'You have to put yourself on the line' - it was bred into us at that time."
 
Tarek's story is left unresolved, and perhaps it's better that way. Maybe, like Ziad Doueiri himself, he leaves Beirut for Europe or America. Maybe, like so many others, he does not get that chance. Tarek's story, and that of his friends, is a personal one, just one of the many possible experiences of the Lebanese Civil War which disappear when the histories are written.