• International Competition

contretemps / al nahar howa al layl

night is day

Ghassan Salhab

Autumn 2019 in Beirut. The streets are shaking day and night with the slogans and the chants of a people who have decided to turn their frustration into revolutionary exhilaration. Ghassan Salhab is in the crowd, at the heart of the uprising. Day after day, demonstration after demonstration, without planning to make a film, he keeps filming. Because he stands with the crowd, rising up as well. Then comes the lockdown, which ruins the momentum. Then the port of Beirut explodes. Then Israel launches its army against Gaza. Autumn 2019-Winter 2023: Night Is Day is both the chronicle of a collective disaster and the diary of a man who only has cinema to protest, in his solitude. Ghassan Salhab has decided to make a film out of the dozens of hours of footage collected on his cell phone, using the power of editing to counter the inability of mankind to defy the crushing march of time. As long as the uprising lasts, the shots seem to repeat themselves endlessly, similar yet different, while the succession of songs shows variations on a shared conscience in the making, a prodigious collective force of creation. What the energy of the street actually lifts is time itself, as if suspended in mid-air. When people start wearing masks and the streets become empty, time resumes its course. Night spreads, personal losses make the mourning of the possibility of a shared world even more tragic. The aching beauty of the film lies in its poetic transformation, from collective epic to the individual elegy of a man who continues to film (despite) the collapse, despite the blindness, the helplessness that seem to affect cinema itself. Filming and phrasing: silent words are written on the screen, in place of the people’s songs. Words exchanged in the night with a Palestinian friend, to share what is left: rage and anger.

Cyril Neyrat

Contretemps (Night is Day) is a personal chronicle of 5 years of Lebanon’s political history, from the fervour of the 2019 uprising via the despair after the explosion of the port through to Israel’s destruction of Gaza. What personal need does this film address?

All these videos were filmed with my phone, and never with the intention of making a movie out of them. I was right in the middle of the demonstrations in Beirut, I filmed and I posted, as we say, on my Instagram account. Quite a few of these videos were posted, almost every day during the uprising in Lebanon in late 2019 and early 2020, for almost five months, before the pandemic broke the momentum in need of a second wind. A sort of visual and audio logbook. In parallel, I was writing articles that were published on the lundimatin site in France and on Megaphone News in Lebanon.
The idea of the ‘film’ came to me out of the blue. I was in Senegal where I was working on a different project. I was swiping through the videos stored on my phone, trying to free up some space, when I began to watch them for the first time, in fact. At last, I had enough distance. This was in June 2023. Straight away, I began saving all the videos to do with the uprising and the months that followed onto a hard drive, organising them chronologically. October, November, December, January… I didn’t know what date I’d stop at. Very soon after, once I was back in Beirut, I began editing. The chronology was obvious straight away. To start with, I had the silly feeling I was taking revenge against the passage of time that never stopped crushing us. A collective revenge as much as a personal one.

The first half is devoted to the uprising: the succession of demonstrations gives the impression of an unstoppable movement. What was your state of mind, filming in the middle of a crowd? Did you have a firm stance about filming? What guided the editing of this collective material?

I was in the thick of it, filming from within, I was part of it. And I had no choice but to be among those with whom I felt more or less close politically, those who were not just reacting to the social and economic crisis. I was on the streets day and night, we hardly slept, and I attended quite a few political meetings, without ever filming them. The momentum of the first few months was festive and intoxicating, there was this feeling that a political conscience was coming to life. I filmed as I’ve always filmed, more or less, head-on, as the old-timers would say – filming what I see, whilst knowing that what I don’t see, what I can’t see, matters just as much, if not more. I say ‘we’, but I never presumed to say or film in the name of… to me, ‘we’ means ‘being part of’. But, I’ll say it again, I wasn’t filming with the intention of making a movie, not even to document events. It was a logbook, my logbook, which I shared almost instantaneously. I was in this uprising, I was part of it. During the editing, I wanted to show this momentum, this fever, the incessant surge of the early months, without commenting.

All of a sudden, the streets are empty. Beirut turns into a ghost town. You keep on filming, documenting this void. Can you tell us a little about this shift – to do with lockdowns, which you don’t name – and how you tackled it on a day-to-day basis, using your mobile phone?

The momentum shrivelled and collapsed with lockdown – everything happens so quickly in this world that we don’t even have time to look back on this insane period. I kept on filming, instinctively, whatever that word still means. Always sharing on my Instagram account. I was still in the swing of my logbook, filming from my balcony and the deserted city, as well as my trips to the mountains. At one point, the Cinémathèque Française invited a lot of people to make filmed letters during this period of confinement. Another site also suggested I made video. I used the videos I already had, adding two or three more. But the idea of making a film still hadn’t occurred to me. I think I was simply still ‘in the thick of it’, and hadn’t ‘stepped back’ yet.

It’s also at this point that the film splits in two for a long, very personal sequence about the decline and death of your mother, which you talk about, describing it by writing on the image. What can you tell us about this abrupt change of tone and style?

As I edited, I was inevitably heading towards the terrible summer of 2020, terrible both personally and collectively – the explosion of 4th August. So I stopped for a while, for several days. My mother’s illness, her sudden death, my father’s death, all in less than three months… Once again, I was overwhelmed. Even more so, in fact, as if I’d suddenly realised the scale of things. Images suddenly had no place. Anyway, I’d deleted the few videos I had of my mother dealing with her long illness. She was increasingly absent and I felt I was violating her privacy. The writing on the screen is also a kind of chronology; it’s a text I wrote soon afterwards, without immediately posting it. I’ve taken fragments from this text, which was called “Contre le Jour” (Against the Light).

From being strictly collective, the film gets more and more personal. The writing is increasingly present in the image. How did this movement take shape?

Writing has always been with me. From the moment it marched into Contretemps, it was bound to continue. The writing on the screen is part of the image, even against a black background. Fragments and text-shots.

How do you go about editing such a mass of images taken without a project in mind? How do you move forward with the editing? In what way is this editing “contretemps” in the sense of offbeat or syncopated?

The chronological structure meant I could move forward day by day, month by month, eliminating what didn’t belong. I (re)discovered everything while editing these videos that were supposed to have no future. In fact, I was almost in a kind of trance, even with the inevitable pauses. “Contretemps or offbeat” perhaps because paradoxically, although I’m in a chronological sequence, the time or tempo are in opposition, the ‘order of time’ is disturbed. The supposedly linear succession, the present, is constantly countered. Time is, in fact, discontinuous.

From the chronicle of an uprising, the film becomes a painting of disaster, “which takes care of everything”, as an intertitle states. It sinks deeper into the night, into the darkness, but also into the intimacy of a kind of film diary. Can you tell us about this development in your film writing?

We’ve lost common wellbeing, the precious commonwealth, so fragile in the face of the powers that be, in the face of the unstoppable logic of trade, of all kinds of vested interests… Then night falls, and the tunnel becomes long, very long.

There are recurring themes in the second part of the film: blindness, eyes that can no longer see or that close; silence, words no longer spoken. What role does film play, faced with this blindness and silence? Can it work against it? Is ‘contretemps’ also a movement in reverse that would allow us to continue to see, hear and speak?

I don’t know what film can do, what its place is today, other than to express the turmoil that’s grasping us everywhere, that grasps the very nature of images, this constant threat of damnation. Not the representation of this turmoil, of ‘the state of things’, but itself (film) profoundly affected, its own sight, its own body, its own organs… I don’t know. Every day, or almost every day, the slightest lucidity we thought we had (well, that I thought I had,) is further undermined.

The final disaster, its climax, is obviously the destruction of Gaza, which you evoke with the tale of a phone call with a Palestinian friend trapped in Bethlehem. A voice that’s not yours tells this story. How did this come about, and why in this form?

I’d stopped editing Contretemps in September 2023. Abruptly, shortly afterwards, everything changed. On October 13th I learnt that the corpse of a friend and comrade who I’d lost touch with had been found in Gaza, his body dismembered, the umpteenth victim of the relentless bombardment of Gaza. I was overcome with rage and anger. Very quickly, I got in touch with other friends and comrades living in the occupied West Bank, fragmented, and certainly not spared even if it’s on a less bloody, less monstrous scale. We’re in touch very regularly, every two or three days for more than eight months now. I wrote an article last November, also published on lundimatin, describing a conversation with a friend living in Bethlehem. I hesitated for a while before deciding that Contretemps would end with this exchange.
I write in French, my friend Bassem Fayad (director of photography for my last two films) helped me translate the text into Arabic. I realised then that I needed to hear a voice recounting this conversation. A voice “from here”, bearing witness. If my Arabic had been better, it would have been my voice, but I preferred Bassem’s. His diction and tone suited me much better. Palestine, so close in every way but geographically inaccessible, reminded us of its appalling, painful reality.

In the credits, you’ve written “a video by Ghassan Salhab”. Not “a film”. Why’s that?

Maybe because originally, in Latin, the word meant “I see”. I’ve always loved this word.

Interview by Cyril Neyrat

  • International Competition
13:3029 June 2024Variétés 1
13:3030 June 2024Variétés 1

Technical sheet

Lebanon / 2024 / Colour / 345'

Original version: Arabic
Subtitles: French, English
Editing: Ghassan Salhab
Sound: Ghassan Salhab, Victor Bresse

Production: Ghassan Salhab (Khamsin Films)
Contact: Tania El Khoury (Khamsin Films)

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