Nothing Happens in Isolation: Ghassan Salhab's The Valley

in 29th Fribourg International Film Festival

by José Antonio Teodoro

Where are we here? In moments of total disorientation the world returns to us one piece at a time. A camellia, bobbing in the sun. A snake, cleanly bisected, still writhing on tarmac. A road’s shoulder, an arid landscape, a middle-aged man, exuding bafflement, his white shirt bloodied, rising to his feet under a cloudless, powder blue sky. Between each image, darkness. The Valley commences with the syncopated opening and closing of an eye that belongs only to us. It’s no one’s perspective. Each image, and its accompanying sound, is another tentative step out of oblivion. Nothing is wasted, yet few of this mysterious film’s images hold obvious significance. We’re deep in a place of not-knowing—this is, after all, the story of an amnesiac and the cagey tribe whose criminal cloister he stumbles into—but everything tells us that what we’re seeing and hearing was crafted by filmmakers who know how arrange shards, how to layer, how to use faces so as to attain the optimum balance of ambiguity and this charged air in which histories float, unspoken yet, between some characters at least, understood. Every face in The Valley is interesting—a good thing when your characters are so tight-lipped. Every window shows both interiors and exteriors. And when there is no glassy surface to provide us with two images to behold at once, we get instead a beguiling superimposition, different angles on the same zone of interest. The Valley tells its story through a series of palimpsests. There is always a private, intimate, tensely quiet world and a greater, louder, more chaotic world reeling just outside.

This is the second in a proposed trilogy from Lebanese writer-director Ghassan Salhab, the first film being 2010’s The Mountain. Though he’s been making films for 30 years, Salhab is a filmmaker whose work I am woefully unfamiliar with. Yet perhaps it’s for the best that I came to The Valley with such a paucity of foreknowledge. (Which is one way of saying that you might want to stop reading this and see the film, if you can, before you read on.) It’s a film about memory loss as a way of encountering the world, everything strange yet eerily familiar. Amnesia is both a useful narrative device and a method of considering how we attempt to compartmentalize the personal and the political, to forget where we come from—probably at our peril. Our unnamed amnesiac (Salhab regular Carlos Chahine) is taken in by quintet of strangers. He first encounters four of the five as he wanders aimlessly through the desert. He manages to fix their stalled car—then promptly falls unconscious. They decide to take him back with them to their agricultural compound, a bucolic idyll that we gradually come to understand is being used for some clandestine activity. Some of the amnesiac’s hosts are uneasy with his presence. Who is he? Did someone send him here? Could he be a threat to their operation? Others are intrigued by him. As she tends to one of his wounds, Carole (Carol Abboud, another Salhab regular), the older of the group’s two women, says to the amnesiac, “I was a nurse in another life”. It’s her first line of dialogue, spoken perhaps a full 20 minutes into the film—this is a really reticent bunch—and a brilliant ice-breaker. Everyone in this film has another life: Carole, the amnesiac, the others in the house, even the much younger woman, Maria (Yumna Marwan), who makes moody pictures with charcoal. Even the mysterious donkey, who’s wandered onto the group’s property. The donkey serves as comic relief, not to mention as a nod toward the four-legged star of Bresson’s Au hasard Bathazar, though, like the amnesiac, this donkey could very well be a Trojan horse. While this chamber drama of suspicion unfolds we receive hints of the greater tensions rising in the world beyond the compound’s perimeter: the military checkpoints the group passes en route, the radio broadcasts that speak of large-scale acts of destruction. On top of this there are signs, emblems from antiquity, that allude to the possibility of some spectacular apocalypse. (Note a conspicuous credit for Nadim Shartouny’s visual effects.) So where are we here? Certain elements could have us almost anywhere, but he surroundings cannot help but remind us that we’re in the Middle East.

But we are also in a series of rooms: a vast kitchen, with much air and many windows, or a laboratory, sterile, with beakers of varied shape and size filled with coloured fluids. These are communal spaces, and for all the disquiet permeating The Valley there are several scenes that, at least fleetingly, provide a sense of community. When the characters connect they do so through acts of physical release: sex, eating, music and dancing. The only glimmers of his past the amnesiac receives come through his remembering of some old love song, which is eventually recognized by Carole. Music lifts the characters out of their seats and, to some extent, out of their unease. We see them dancing in that kitchen, and, in another palimpsest, Salhab shows us this dancing from two angles at once—a cubist dance scene, and one that emphasizes the film’s undercurrent of panoptical foreboding, that watchful double-eye, perhaps searching scenes some tiny tell that might give the game away. But, in one of the film’s later, more enigmatic moments, we also see Maria dancing alone in her room, aptly enough to Joy Division’s chilly anti-anthem ‘Isolation’. (I rather like that fact that deep into in this film riddled with enigma Salhab offers us a musical cue whose very title is 100% thematically on-the-nose.) Does Maria dance differently when the others can’t see her? Or do each of these characters, save the amnesiac, always comport themselves as through someone is watching, whether that someone is a legal authority seeking opportunity to pounce and make arrests, an ostensibly ally looking for a chance to betray the others, an interloper, an angel, or a god. Where are we here? We are the eye that belongs to no one but us, an eye provided by Salhab and his collaborators, ever-vigilant for the coming doom that none of these characters, lost in their own private enterprises or the fog of lost memories, are able to prophesy or prepare for.

José Teodoro