A take on “Beirut” from someone who has been there

Sunday, February 11, 2018 - 9:17pm

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“2,000 years of revenge, vendetta and murder. Welcome to Beirut.”

This is what the beautiful cultural center that is Beirut, Lebanon is reduced to in Jon Hamm’s new movie, “Beirut,” due for release in April. Taking place during the Lebanese civil war in 1982, the trailer follows a white man (who is also a U.S. diplomat) who fled Lebanon in 1972 after his family is killed and returns ten years later to negotiate for a friend’s life.

There are many problems with this film, and I didn’t even have to watch the movie to be angered by them; the trailer, released January 11th, itself was enough. For starters, it portrays Beirut as a ravaged, war-torn, deserted wasteland. Even during the civil war, which was caused by Israeli invasions, Lebanon never looked this bad. Furthermore, the movie is not even shot in Lebanon — it is shot in Morocco – and features approximately zero actual Lebanese actors. Personally, I find it insulting that thousands of people will pay to view the depicted somber setting of Lebanon with a starkly suspenseful plot following a white protagonist and the portrayal of the United States and Israel as the heroic dynamic duo. The fake accents are laughable, the plot is cliché and the white victim/savior complex is beyond overplayed.

We’ve seen it countless times — a story portraying us as uncivilized, destructive, barbaric and in need of saving. Our countries and cultures are misrepresented, our customs are mocked and our religions are scoffed at. Only certain movies featuring Arab or Muslim people are eaten up by mainstream media, and it is very evident they are the ones that feature the infamous white savior. "American Sniper," another popular white-savior film, tugs at the heartstrings of uneducated American sympathizers who view soldiers as heroes and foreigners as terrorists. But who’s to blame when minorities are repeatedly portrayed as such in mainstream media? For many, the only knowledge they have about Arabs is what they see on the big screen, and this perpetuates an ignorance about our cultures that breeds hatred.

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As someone whose parents are Lebanese immigrants, and someone who has spent many summers in Beirut, I feel indignant at this one-sided portrayal. When I think of Beirut, I think of long stretches of white sand and the cool water of the Mediterranean Sea. I think of my grandmother’s cheetah-printed couches and the countless neighborhood cats that my cousins and I claimed as our own. I still remember vividly when our favorite cat, Lolita, gave birth in our backyard. It is where my mother grew up, in a small southern suburb of Beirut that now hosts around 30,000 Syrian and Lebanese refugees. I think of downtown Beirut and its vibrant energy and how it’s nothing like the war-torn, ash-filled trash it was made out to be in this trailer. Yes, war is a part of Lebanon’s history, but it is not the entirety of it.

The reason for my mention of these personal experiences with Beirut is to prove that, to many people, the wrongful misrepresentation and exploitation of a country produces strong personal responses. Until you have experienced a culture, and truly felt its love, its beauty, its pain and its suffering, generalizing it and reducing it to “2,000 years of revenge, vendetta and murder” is not only erroneous; it’s lazy. What about the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese people who died during the war? What about the million, about a quarter of the population, who were displaced as a result? Are they not more deserving of a storyline than a hypothetical white man who supposedly saved them all? I am not alone when I say white people need to stop portraying themselves as heroes all the time. White saviorism is rampant and has been since the beginning of time, and minorities and people of color keep being depicted as savages who need saving, when honestly, it’s usually white Americans from whom we need saving. Certain parts of our culture are chosen to be celebrated — our food, our music, our city life — while other parts are discarded, put on a screen and distorted, and twisted into a way that benefits the filmmakers and misrepresents us entirely.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t see the film (well, I sort of am). But, at least, keep in mind that what you are shown on a screen is often not the reality of a country or its people.