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West Beirut Review

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★★★★

Based on events from his 70s childhood, Ziad Doueiri’s debut feature is already being compared to John Boorman’s Hope And Glory. But this hard-edged comedy is free of the latter’s sentimentality.

Having studied movies in the States, Doueiri served as an assistant cameraman on all three Quentin Tarantino features as well as Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn. The US influence is evident in this polished, yet personal picture - but the content is unmistakably Lebanese.Tarek (Rami Doueiri) sees the outbreak of hostilities in 1976 as an opportunity for maturation and mischief rather than a cause of fear or an infringement of his liberties. So, as the barricades spring up and his parents contemplate exile, the excitable Muslim teenager, his movie-mad buddy Omar (Chamas) and their Christian neighbour May (Al Amin) run the gamut of experiences from criss-crossing no-go areas to breaking into a brothel.

What impresses most about this bittersweet film is Doueiri’s control. He makes a complex and constantly shifting political situation readily accessible without resorting to lecturing. Moreover, his assured blend of crisply edited handheld and Steadicam footage gives the action a sense of youthful exuberance. Yet he still has the presence to alight on the telling details that root the story in its particular time and place.

However, it’s his handling of the cast that is most noteworthy. He’s certainly fortunate in having a younger brother who’s so comfortable in front of the camera. But Chamas (whom he spotted in an orphanage) and Al Amin are also wonderfully natural, while Carmen Lebbos and Joseph Bou Nassar, as Tarek’s parents convey the gravity of the conflict without destroying the delicate balance of this genuinely astonishing film.