Ghassan Salhab: What lurks in the valley

Ghassan Salhab: What lurks in the valley
Review: Filmmaker Ghassan Salhab's futuristic 'The Valley' is an artistic reflection of Lebanon's reality
6 min read
09 March, 2015
Salhab [L], director of The Valley [Getty]
The film The Valley (2014), by Lebanese director Ghassan Salhab, opens dramatically: a still image of a rose, then a sudden plunge into darkness.

From here the opening lines sound: "Atop the high mountains he closed his eyes, blocking out a light that had traversed thousands of years to reach him. Eyes shut, he descended into the valley."

The screen still black, the noise of a car crash is heard, and the picture cuts to a snake, severed in two over the asphalt of the road.

We encounter a tall, bald man (played by Carlos Chahine), clad in a white, blood-stained shirt. A bird of prey shrieks above him. He stumbles along an abandoned road before coming across two men and women whose car has broken down. After helping them fix the car and then fainting, the group decide to take the stranger back with them.

This how The Valley begins. Such careful manipulation, down to the smallest detail, of the viewer's experience in the first three minutes of the film has become a trademark feature of Salhab's cinematic style. The structure and thematic development of his films are controlled, engaging the viewer only at the director's measured, unhurried pace.  It is Salhab's structure that commands the entire production, in which the images both hover around and plunge headfirst.

Salhab's style is unique, witnessed in The Valley through his skilful interweaving of setting and character, playing on the audience's curiosity without conforming to the typical thriller. We are intrigued by the unknown man of the opening scene "descending into the valley", who appears to have completely lost his memory. There are no clues as to the character's identity, save his strained attempt to recall the lyrics of a song by Aziza Jalal ("I am waiting for you, my love, with every lover's burning desire.")

Only at the end - the futuristic vision to which the film builds up – do we discover who this man really was. In this way, it is the larger themes which prevail over the individual.

The element of mystery which drives the film also extends to the place where the unknown man is taken: a heavily guarded farm estate, home to five people who live cut off from the rest of the world. It soon transpires that this is a centre for producing marijuana and other drugs. Moreover, the five individuals who surround the mysterious man are each endowed with a unique set of skills. The character Marwan (Fadi Abi Samra) is working to produce a special narcotic formula, toiling away almost as though trying to make an elixir of life. Yet he is simultaneously a poet, or a contemplator, his notebook a remarkable mixture of his thoughts and chemical formulas. We hear him repeating: "The dawn will not come. Night is day. Day is night. Ink is wine. Wine is blood. The earth is an ocean…"

It is this alternative side to each character which allows us to forget who they really are: a bunch of drug manufacturers and dealers. Even referring to them in this way seems somehow misplaced. The owner of the farm, Hekmat (Aouni Kawas), is a superb chef; whilst Maria (Yumna Marwan), is totally absorbed in her world of charcoal drawings. Every evening these three characters sit with Carole (Carole Abboud) and Ali (Mounzer Baalbaki), eating dinner and drinking, and trying to discern what should be the fate of the ambiguous man, who joins in their meetings yet remains unable to recall anything of his past.

The opening of the film exposes us immediately to the puzzling dilemma of the leading character, but the struggle in the middle emerges from both the mysterious and the expected. Having said this, answers to questions such as: what happens in the film? Or: how do events develop? Or: what is the underlying conflict? Will not be found in tracing the movements of the plot. The characters in the film are static, neither overcoming, nor solving, anything.

Aside from the opening scene, the parts of the film with greatest impact are when Marwan manages to produce his desired concoction, and when the ambiguous man's attempt to escape fails. Following this is when the group tie up and threaten him, trying to make him confess to his real identity. Finally, there is the dramatic lead up to the finale – that is, if all events in the film are not considered a lead up – when the army draws closer to the farm, though it is not their target.

The Valley can be seen to reflect the Lebanese reality on two levels. Firstly, in the sense of absence we perceive in everything we watch: the mysterious man's loss of memory; the psychological and social dimension of the characters and their relationships; the fleeting image of solidarity with various sects, and yet the complete isolation of the farm from society.

The other level is illuminated in the dialogue. We see this for example in the discussion about "social illnesses" (to use Ali's words), when Hekmat tries to find out the name and the sect to which the mysterious man belongs. By Hekmat's reasoning, the stranger's name is more than likely to be "Marwan, Joseph or Antoine", and he deduces from his appearance that he is not Muslim.

This all leads Carole to come to the conclusion that the sect they belong to is related to "cooking and sex", for the five of them, by and large, manage to live harmoniously with one another – and that maybe is the reason why they are so cut off from the outside world. Perhaps the strongest emotional reaction we witness from the mystery man in the entire film is at this point, as Hekmat probes the issue of his social identity.

However, the most direct reference to the outside world that we witness in The Valley comes in the form of a radio broadcast, reporting that the number of Syrian refugees has reached one million, in a country where the population does not exceed five million. We also get a fleeting glimpse of the situation at the beginning of the film, as the group drive past a number of tents set up at the edge of the road and Carole remarks: "More refugees."

With The Valley, Salhab completes his trilogy which began with The Mountain (2010) and which he will finish with a film called Fire. We may even perceive the opening lines of The Valley as expressing the continuation in Salhab's cinema: the mysterious man descending into the valley, completing the footprints in the snow followed by the main character in The Mountain. Like the main character in The Valley, he is nameless, deciding not to go ahead with his journey after arriving at the airport. He instead proceeds to lock himself up in a room in a remote mountain hotel, immersing himself in writing and pleasuring himself as planes circle in the sky above.

A recurring feature in Salhab's films is the idea of a man returning to Lebanon after a period of absence. Such is the case with The Valley, or with the first of his feature films Phantom Beirut (1998), in which a man returns to Beirut ten years after his presumed death in the civil war.

Salhab ends The Valley with a pessimistic depiction of the future. The still shot of the rose at the beginning of the film is contrasted with the panoramic image of a bleak and barren landscape at the end. This pessimism dominates Salhab's perception of the current climate across the entire Arab region and its future. War is inevitable, or, as told in the film, "The whole region is in chaos", and "not a soul remains and all forms of communication have been severed". The main characters of the film must now remain in the valley, completely and utterly alone, meanwhile the scribbled musings in Marwan's notebook suddenly acquire ghastly significance: "We are like fruits hanging from branches, twisted into odd shapes and plagued by the wind."

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.