‘This is a movie in the war’

Director Ghassan Salhab talks about his film ‘Ashbaah Beirut’ which helped audiences reflect on the trauma of a nation

By Mohamad Kadry (kadry@khaleejtimes.com)

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Published: Sat 11 Oct 2008, 11:26 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 3:43 PM

WHEN DIRECTOR GHASSAN Salhab began making movies a decade ago, war would somehow become his muse. The native Lebanese was brought up between Beirut and Paris, barely tasting the conflict his country would endure for nearly two decades. His debut film, Ashbaah Beirut (Beirut’s Ghosts), would be the first of a trilogy set against the backdrop of the Lebanese civil war. Instead of highlighting the actual conflict, Salhab used his fictional characters to play out their real life experiences on screen. ‘This is not a movie about the war, this is a movie in the war’ he says. When released in 1999, it was well received throughout the international festival circuit and Lebanon itself. Using a unique mix of documentary flashbacks set to the rhythm of a fictionalised story, the movie helped audiences reflect on the trauma of a nation. A decade on, Salhab re-screens his debut success in Dubai as part of the ‘Roads Were Open / Roads Were Closed Film Series’ presented by The Third Line gallery, and enters into a dialogue with fans and critics alike.

How does it feel to watch your film 10 years after it was originally made?

It’s always bizarre for someone to see his own work. As a guy who is living in Beirut, I am afraid that this story will continue repeating itself. I’ve never been optimistic about the situation but when I created this movie, I could not have known what would unfold in Lebanon this past decade… you can’t write a script for that.

Why do you mix fiction and reality in the format of your film about the Lebanese Civil War?

Why not? I am not the first to have done it in cinema. Sometimes what we call reality is much stronger than fiction. I wanted to use characters who have lived this experience of war tell the simple feelings of this period of time. I count on the intelligence of the audience to distinguish between the fiction that takes place during the actual Lebanese Civil War, and the documentary flashbacks that take place after the conflict ended. Making a fictionalised film about such a huge reality is such a special and difficult task, and that’s why I found limitations.

What was it like filming in Beirut?

It was very simple actually. We filmed it in 1998 and there were no battles or anything of the sort going on. We got permission from the authorities and that was it.

You have used Beirut in all of your past films. Can you tell us about the city as a character?

It’s difficult to analyse your own work. Beirut is a city in perpetual movement and mutation. Here in Dubai you have a city that is a work in progress, but Beirut has redefined itself continually. This is because, of course, we have had a lot of destruction that forced us to redraw the city. For me Beirut is a body, a character that is alive. The difference is this body keeps changing, yet it always remains the same. I’m trying to capture the strange atmosphere of this city, which is very difficult.

Did you actually live through the war in Lebanon?

I was living between Paris and Beirut. I am an immigrant born in Africa, like 75% of the Lebanese population living in diasporas. I did not live this war like my friends, which automatically gave me a kind of distance.

If you were to make a movie about the war today, would you change anything?

This is not a movie about the war...it is a movie in the war. It means nothing to look back and want to change something about a film. It’s like having a baby – once it comes out you wouldn’t think about putting it back in. Any movie for me has layers, because this movie was about the impossibility of building a story.

Are you ever impacted by the audience reception to your films?

What’s interesting about cinema is the diversity of feedback from the audience. The most interesting type of reception for me is those people who don’t like my work at all. Maybe people have difficulty understanding that a movie is not a reproduction of life – even if it is a documentary. It’s just an angle… a subjective way for a filmmaker to see.

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