Ghassan Salhab’s Terra incognita

Salhab’s celebrated film captures uncertainties that still face Beirutis today, between history and the present, ruin and reconstruction, leaving or staying.

Terra incognita is available for streaming here through Thursday, October 22.

Beirut is at the heart of most of the films of Lebanese director Ghassan Salhab (b. 1958). Terra incognita was released in 2002 and screened in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section. In the film, Beirut is personified by a gallery of characters like Soraya, a tour guide who by day visits the region’s archaeological ruins with a cohort of foreigners, and at night gives herself over to casual encounters. There is also Nadim, an architect who has terrifying plans to rebuild Beirut and locks himself in his apartment to implement them on his computer; and Tarek, who is back in Beirut after years of exile, but does not seem to know why he returned or even whether he will stay.

Terra incognita is a film about a generation born between the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1970s, and who experienced the Lebanese War (1975–90) as teenagers and children. It is an age group whose youth, in its search for identity, blends with the post-conflict period at the turn of the 21st century. On screen, each character embodies one of the possible ways of being that young people of this generation had to invent in order to survive the trauma of war and to project themselves into the country’s reconstruction. These characters are most often seen on the move, in the city, or in the ruins. With a strong sense of visual metaphor, Salhab built his film on a series of dialectical counterpoints such as history and the present, ruin and reconstruction, leaving or staying.

Almost two decades separate the making of Terra incognita from the ordeal Lebanon has just experienced: economic recession, political irresponsibility, street protests, global pandemic, and finally the August 4 blast in the port of Beirut. The current context is certainly different, but the uncertainty of the future remains a constant. Many of the questions that arose then are still being asked today. The poetic overture—the hallmark of Ghassan Salhab’s style—makes this film astonishingly relevant.