Ziad Doueiri: War as Backdrop to Teenage Antics Brings Beirut to American Audiences

Kate Seelye
Director Ziad Doueiri

Seelye: Why did you choose to tell the story of two teenage boys coming of age in wartime Beirut?

Doueiri: I remember the war as a teenager. Furthermore, I knew from the beginning that making my protagonists teenagers would give me more freedom of expression. A teenager can get away with things during a time of war that adults cannot. As teenagers, Tarek and Omar had the freedom to behave without inhibitions and explore their sexuality.

Seelye: How autobiographical is this film?

Doueiri: A lot of this movie happened the way it was in real life. I lived the characters’ experiences almost scene by scene. I had a family like Tarek’s. I was so familiar with the story that I did not need to invent any of the characters. All I needed to do was to invent links between the scenes. I just needed a storyline, and I found that using Super-8 was the link. The film starts with Super-8 shots filmed by Tarek and Omar, in the middle I use Super-8, and the film ends with Super-8 shots.

Seelye: Stylistically and thematically, “West Beirut” feels very geared towards a Western audience. Why did you make that choice?

Doueiri: I wanted to make a movie that would work in the U.S. I wanted to make a commercial film. I wanted to make something different from the films of Youssef Chahine or the films of Maroun Baghdadi – good films, but serious films… disadvantaged because they did not deal with universal themes, only issues that Lebanese or Egyptians can understand. They remain local films and rarely reach wider audiences. I wanted to make a film that would be seen by American audiences and help them see that not all Lebanese are terrorists. While writing the script, I kept 3x5 cards that read “Remember America.” I wanted to remind myself that I was writing it for an American audience. Not an Arab audience.

Seelye: Why was it so important for you to reach an American audience?

Doueiri: Because America has become my home. Los Angeles is my home. I wanted to give Americans a different perspective of the Middle East. I wanted them to better understand it. So many of my friends used to ask me how it was growing up in Lebanon. I wanted to be able to show them. We’re human. We have sexy-looking people and dogs and horny kids

Seelye: The film is filled with nostalgia for a Beirut of another era. By making such a nostalgic film, don’t you run the risk of romanticizing a very deadly conflict?

Doueiri: When I moved to L.A., two to three years after leaving Beirut in 1983, I began thinking of it in very nostalgic ways. I couldn’t help it. At the same time I was thinking about the humorous side of life in Beirut. From time to time as I was making the film, I wondered if I was making things much lighter than they were. And some people in Beirut said this is not a real portrayal of life during the war. This is a naive outlook on the Lebanese conflict. How could you portray a war that left 200,000 people dead and God knows how many people injured in such a humorous manner? My response was, this is how I lived it. I did not experience huge tragedies personally, and I had to be true to my experiences and emotions. At the same time, I did not want to make too serious a film; I wanted it to be seen by broader audiences.

Seelye: I watched the film with an audience of Arabs and Americans at the San Francisco Arab Film Festival. There was a lot of laughter. How did you see humor as a tool to get your message across?

Doueiri: It’s more effective to pass along messages of humanism and peace through humor and by making people laugh than by shoving something serious in an audience’s face. I’ve seen enough tragic films that deal with the Lebanese conflict. For aesthetic and personal reasons, I wanted to try something different. In this day and age, audiences want something more entertaining. Today movies like “Bulworth” work, not “Three Days of the Condor.”

Seelye: Your film deals more with the universal themes of friendship and sexuality than with the politics of Lebanon per se, though you do address political issues, like issues of identity and religion. How political were you trying to make the film?

Doueiri: If I made the film purely political, we would not be sitting here because you would not have seen the film. It would not have sold. And if I had made it too commercial, I would have overlooked the political realities in Lebanon. I had to constantly balance the political issues with the need to get back to the fun part, following two teenagers around. I used the war as a rear screen projection so that an American audience could understand the context of these kids’ experiences without complicating things too much. I did not want to make a political film, but you cannot not divorce yourself from the politics of the Middles East.

Seelye: How did the Lebanese respond to “West Beirut?”

Doueiri: Well, those who were very attached to history commented that the massacre of April 13th, 1975, that started the war, happened on a Sunday, not on a school day, as I show it. They asked how I could manipulate facts and said it wasn’t right. I agreed. I did manipulate dates but pointed out that 99% of the audience would not know because I was making the film for a Western audience. As a filmmaker, you are permitted to exaggerate certain things, you are permitted to downplay certain things and to change dates and events. I am allowed to do that as long as it works for the film. In fiction you take history and reality and make it work for the film. In documentary, it’s the other way around.

Seelye: I understand all your teenage actors were not professional actors, and they did a superb job. However, I’m particularly interested in your work with the professional actors like Carmen Lebbos, who plays Tarek’s mom, and Joseph Bou Nasser, who plays the father. What were the challenges of directing them, given that you were looking for a more American style?

Doueiri: A lot of Lebanese actors come from television and theater because there’s no film industry. In TV and theater, you tend to over-act. In theater you have to project so the guy in back can see you. In movies, we come to you. So it took some work to get them to adopt a more minimalistic approach. Joseph, who’s done a lot of theater, had a tendency to over-project and over-exaggerate, and I kept telling him, look, in motion picture, the slightest movement can be seen because I can put a tight lens on your face, so do things a little bit less. I worked with one actor in the States – the one out of the 50 films that I’ve worked on – who showed me best how much you can show by doing less. He spoke very little, he acted very little and he gave a lot. That was Robert De Niro in “Jackie Brown,” which I worked on just before going to Beirut to shoot this film. His approach stayed with me in terms of a technique to communicate to the adult actors.

Seelye: What’s your next project?

Doueiri: My next film is about American foreign policy in the Middle East. It’s about an American diplomat, who reluctantly goes to the Mideast to make amends after the Gulf War. He is on a mission that helps open the first dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians. It’s a political film based on real characters, but I’m depoliticizing it as much as possible. I want to take a complex subject, like American foreign policy in the Middle East, and personalize it with a lot of humor and show how through humor and personal moments, problems can be resolved.

Seelye: Has anyone expressed interest in it?

Doueiri: What “West Beirut” has allowed me to do is to get people interested in reading my second script. Miramax contacted me three times and 20th Century Fox has contacted me a couple of times. They’re waiting for the screenplay. So “West Beirut” is opening doors for me.

This interview appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 28, Summer 1999.
Copyright © 1999 AL JADID MAGAZINE