BEIRUT: “It’s a real problem right now, this electricity thing,” Ghassan Salhab says, checking his phone. “I’m trying to edit an essay film right now ... When you lack rhythm because of electricity, it’s impossible to find the rhythm in your work.
“Editing is the only thing I can do now. If my hands work, they might connect with my brain, and stomach maybe ... but right now it’s only my head, and my head is most of the time turned off now anyway.”
Salhab is among Lebanon’s most prolific filmmakers. In a country that supports cinema – and the arts generally – the way Lebanon does, that’s no small thing.
He doesn’t make crowd-pleasing romantic comedies, or the sort of morally seasoned melodramas that can appeal to film festival juries overseas. Though “Beyrouth Fantome,” his 1998 debut, is set during Lebanon’s long Civil War, he hasn’t built a career on neorealist-inspired tales of violence and tribalism.
“I’m not complaining. I’m not a box office guy. That I can still make films is like a miracle,” Salhab chuckles. “No, it is a miracle.”
“Al-Naher” (The River), Salhab’s sixth feature, will premiere at the Locarno film festival next month. The final work in a series that began with “The Mountain,” 2010, and continued with “The Valley,” 2014, the new film is a time capsule from before Lebanon’s current troubles.
“The film finished during what we’re calling ‘the first wave’” of the pandemic, he says. “This wave thing reminds me of when the Civil War started here – first round, second round, then they stopped counting. I hope it’s not gonna happen the same here, now that they’re talking about the fourth wave, the delta variant.
“The last time I saw the film, it was in March or April of 2020. Tanya Khoury, my producer, and me, we decided we didn’t want to premiere online. So we refused some offers before we heard from Locarno at the end of 2020 or beginning of 2021. I forget. I lost relation with time in 2020.
“They sent us an email saying they wanted the film for the competition. We asked them if Locarno would be a physical festival. They said yes. I’m happy it’s Locarno. It’s an important festival, and the films are more important than the circus.”
Salhab finds it difficult to discuss his film before its world premiere. For one thing the public hasn’t watched it yet.
“‘The River’ closes a triptych,” he says, stressing that the three films don’t constitute three chapters of a single story. “It’s more of an inner thing, an organic thing. It works mostly with this state of being [in Lebanon], but of course it’s not symbolic, or whatever.
“The film, in the end, it’s the impossibility of a woman and a man. It’s forever. This is the simple reality of humanity, of trying to be together.”
“We understand they are a couple, but that’s it,” he adds later. “The story is told over an afternoon and an evening. They decide to go eat somewhere together. We understand there’s something happening ... a war, in the country or in the region.”
“The River” is neither a lockdown movie nor a revolution film, but the events of the past 18 months or so have affected the filmmaker’s relationship to his work.
“So many things have happened since. I don’t have to explain. Even people outside Lebanon know what deep shit we’re in, and it’s not finished. We’re still falling. We haven’t hit the ground yet.
“It’s not that ‘The River’ isn’t in me, or whatever. It is, of course, but to be honest I’m not there and that has nothing to do with the film.”
Salhab’s work draws upon an accumulating cast of players and “The River” reunites him with Yumna Marwan – whose debut in “The Valley” deflected her career path toward professional acting, and who now has over a dozen film and television roles to her credit.
Her co-star is Ali Suliman, working with Salhab for the first time. Since co-starring in Hany Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now” in 2005, Suliman has become one of the region’s best-known actors.
“When I met Ali, I hadn’t written a word of ‘The River’ yet,” Salhab recalls, “but I knew the role would be perfect for him, someone very masculine who can be fragilized.”
He pauses to consult his phone’s French-English dictionary. “Whose masculinity can be undermined? Anyway, there is a real chemistry between Ali and Yumna that I like.”
Shooting “The River” was an intimate affair, though Salhab is wary of falling into the tropes of a low-budget art house film production.
“It was a very small budget, and small crew,” he says, “and I’m not saying that for the usual, blah blah blah. We didn’t have a make-up technician. You’d see one actor taking off the shadow or light thing for the other, and not resentfully.
“We didn’t have any artificial light 99 percent of the time. We worked with natural light. It’s all outside. With [director of photography Bassem Fayad], we knew we’d work a lot on the color grading, and it was almost like painting the film again after the shoot.
“I shot 90 percent of ‘The River’ in the north, a major part of that in Akkar and Diniyeh. Really great places, very strong. Not so many people there, and it’s bad for them because most of the time they’re poor, but it’s great for nature.”
Salhab emerged from the shoot with immense respect for the work of his cast and crew.
“I do remember the real pleasure of making this film, even if we didn’t have as many days to shoot as I wanted. When we finished, most of the people came to me asking if we could add a few extra days to the production. They didn’t even want to be paid, but we couldn’t add one day even.”
Khoury’s budget was around $200,000, hardly extravagant for a feature film, and the shoot was a mere 21 days long. In a production like this, the filmmaker muses, it’s important to have dedicated collaborators.
“We had only a few days, but I prepared a lot. It takes hours to get to most of these places. Bassem and my artistic director Wael Dib, sometimes [sound engineer] Karine Bacha, came with me.
“We made a lot of tests with Bassem, because we shot the night scenes during the daytime. You know, you can do a lot of interesting things today when you don’t have so much money ... The whole crew threw themselves into this adventure. When you work with people you’ve worked with before, really good technicians, total accomplices in the art, you can go further. These 21 days are like 30 days.”
He sips from a water bottle.
“I was just reading in some newspaper that people are hoping to come back to normal. I thought, ‘Who the hell doesn’t know that “normal” is what got us in this mess.’
“Going back to normal means going back as if nothing happened. It’s very sad to hear that. At the same time, I understand. People want to breathe. They want to stop with the mask. They want to kiss. They want to f**k. Like that [Europa League] football match in London last week, though we may have a thousand new cases of Corona tomorrow.
“This is humanity. We hate each other. At the same time, we want so much the other. It’s the usual ugly and beautiful tango that we’ve been dancing for centuries.”
He checks his phone.
“So I’m going to Locarno and, like before, showing a film at a festival. What can I say more than that. I think it’s going to be very weird for people to watch their films on the big screen, but there will be Yumna, and Ali and Tanya, and maybe with a very good bottle of whiskey after.”
The 74th Locarno Film Festival runs 4-14 August. For more information, see: https://www.locarnofestival.ch