Ghassan Salhab brought avant-garde "Mountain" to Doha-Tribeca

A filmmaker’s “success” can be measured in terms of box office receipts or critical reception. In places without a proper film industry, it can mean getting your films made and seen — all the more difficult when the filmmaker is committed to noncommercial cinema.

By this measure, Ghassan Salhab, whose pic “The Mountain” premiered at the Doha Tribeca Film Fest, is one of Lebanon’s most successful filmmakers. Chatting with the writer-director on the sidelines of the festival in November provided a good barometer of the changing models for financing independent Arab film.

Salhab says none of his four features received post-production funding. His first feature, “Beyrouth Fantome” (1998) cost about $400,000. As the helmer lives between Beirut and Paris, it was natural to seek financing from France’s unique network of funding agencies.

“I had support from Fund Sud, the Francophonie (France’s answer to the British Commonwealth) and some private funding from Beirut.”

“Fantome” had a brief career on the festival circuit, later appearing in MENA-region film programs. Most recently it was picked up for Mapping Subjectivity, a program of experimental Arabic-language cinema that screened at MoMA in October-November.

“Terra Incognita” (2002) marked the beginning of the filmmaker’s happy, if brief, relationship with the Franco-German television channel Arte, specifically its Fiction unit — which from 1991-2003 was run by Pierre Chevalier.

At $800,000, “Incognita” was Salhab’s most expensive film. His only movie to be shot in 35mm, it was selected to have its world premiere in Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2002. Arte also saw to it that “Incognita” was broadcast, as was “Fantome,” whose rights it purchased.

Salhab’s first two features are set “in Beirut” but he doesn’t make films “about Beirut” — whether Lebanon’s civil war, invasions or clashes between Occident and Orient.

“Fantome” and “Incognita” both deploy ensemble casts in an effort to capture the mood of a space where (whether at war or peace) everything is in a state of suspension.

“The Last Man” (2006) marked Salhab’s first experiment with genre — in this case, vampires. It was shot on digital video for $600,000. Though the budget was smaller, under Chevalier’s mentorship the film had exposure comparable to that of “Incognita.”

This year’s “The Mountain” (which was also digitally shot) cost $190,000, with the lion’s share of the financing coming from Lebanon — principally Georges Schoucair of Beirut’s Abbout Prods. Salhab then received a grant of $60,000 from the Doha Film Institute, making “The Mountain” his first Lebanon-Qatar co-production. The film had its international premiere during the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival, where it screened in DTFF’s Arab film competition.

“If a film doesn’t have a major festival to provide a window of exposure — Doha, Abu Dhabi or Dubai — it will be a big problem. Without a major festival, you lose the chance of a major market for the film and your producer will become fearful,” Salhab says.

The director has two more feature film projects on the drawing board — “The Valley” and “The River,” which will complete the outside-of-Beirut series initiated by “The Mountain.”

“Much as I enjoy video, I’d love to shoot ‘The Valley’ in 35mm. I miss the texture, the skin of 35mm,” he says.

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