Salhab, Ghassan
With precision and a dreamy quality, Ghassan Salhab’s film and video projects examine life in and around Beirut – a city that has been destroyed and rebuilt seven times. With powerful soundtracks and intense imagery, Ghassan Salhab’s films pose questions about “the status of art during times marked by war and terror” (from the Berlinale catalogue, 2015) and the central premises underlining human society.
Salhab is considered one of Lebanon’s most important directors. He was born in 1958 to Lebanese parents living in Senegal. In addition to the six feature films he has directed to date, he has also created a number of short films and videos. His films have been screened at the most important festivals around the world, from the Berlinale to Cannes, and in Marseille, Tribeca, and Locarno. Since 1986, he has written screenplays for many French and Lebanese films. He also teaches film at various universities and other institutions in Lebanon and other Arab countries. For the film “Baalbeck” (2000, video, 25‘), Ghassan Salhab collaborated with another guest of the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program, Akram Zaatari, who was a guest in 2010. He has published texts and articles in various magazines, while a bilingual edition of his book Fragments du Livre du naufrage was published in Arabic and French in 2012. In 2002, Salhab left France to return to Lebanon.
Ghassan Salhab has won many prizes around the world for his work: He has been honored as best director from the Arabic world at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival for “La Vallée” in 2014; “Le Dernier Homme” was awarded the prize for best actor in a leading role at a festival in Singapore in 2006; and the film “Beyrouth Fantôme” was awarded the prize for best soundtrack at a festival in Nantes in 1998.
With concentration and a precise eye, Ghassan Salhab shows the multifaceted conditions of human society in a series of seemingly disparate microcosmoses. The civil war in Lebanon and its effects, such as fear and emigration, are present throughout his films, yet he transforms them into universally shared experiences. Ghassan Salhab’s direction and cinematography gain strength from reduction. The wide breadth of his work spans many genres, including chamber pieces (“La Vallée,” 2014 / “La Montagne,” 2011 / “Terra Incognita,” 2002 / “Beyrouth Fantôme,” 1998), lyrical documentary films, such as “1958” (2009), video works and vampire films, such as the 2006 “Le Derniere Homme,” an homage to Murnau’s “Nosferatu.” His most recent two films form part of a trilogy; he plans to develop the final part, called “La Rivière,” in Berlin. All three are set in Beirut, which the director considers to be a main character in the films.
Like the unnamed character in Pasolini’s “Teorema,” “La Vallée” (2014) features a man suffering from amnesia, whose condition serves as a projection screen. Due to his presence, repressed tension implodes in a drug-producing community surviving in isolation, but with some quotidian elements nonetheless. The present day is also disrupted by a seemingly unknown stranger in “Beyrouth Fantôme” (1998), when a man suddenly reappears after a ten-year absence. The New York Times raved that the film was an intelligent thriller of deception, loyalty and betrayal, and how we perceive the world. In his cinematic debut, Ghassan Salhab included conversations with his actors about the movie, thus creating a highly personal look at the effects of the war in Lebanon on the people living there. The setting in “La Montagne” (2011) is even more minimalistic than usual: Here, a man locks himself in a hotel room so that he can write poetry. With first-rate cinematography and the calm presence of the leading actor, the director succeeds in portraying these internal conflicts on the screen.
“The coming together of the sacred, the sublime and the contemporary, its potential for imagistic experimentation and manipulation, further brings to light the work’s avant-garde singularity.” This was written by the author and lecturer Ghalya Saadawi in her essay “Untouch Me,” which examines Ghassan Salhab’s work in video. Though she finds “an overriding sensation of emptiness and immateriality” in his works, she nonetheless deems them life affirming, even capable of excess. In “La Rose de Personne” (2000), for example, the viewer sees shots of overlapping street scenes, which were recorded from a moving car and create the illusion of never-ending movement; streets blur, just like our own memories. Images reflect and overlap on a symbolic and visual level in his films “Posthume” (2006), “Narcisse perdu” (2004), and “Mon corps vivant, mon corps mort” (2003) as well. With a soundscape composed of a beating heart and music from Arvo Pärt and Giya Kancheli, the body of an artist is transformed into an icon in “Mon corps vivant, mon corps mort” (2003). Christ’s final words fill the screen: “Noli me tangere,” or “don’t touch me.” With Ghassan Salhab’s films we find the opposite: It is through their use of minimal devices that they move us.

Text: Maike Wetzel

Translation into English: Amy Pradell