REFUGEE LIFE: Syrian refugees are rebuilding the Middle East while they wait to return home.
Director: Ziad Kalthoum
Country: Germany/Lebanon/Syria

The 2017 edition of the Swiss film festival “Visions du Réel” in Nyon was the last to be helmed by director Luciano Barisone. This edition of the festival has confirmed, once again, that one of its main objectives is to give marginalized, abandoned, and often helpless people a chance to be seen and respected. Disconnected individuals with restricted means of communication or social comfort, who find themselves neglected by the outside world, are offered an international platform from which to reaffirm their existence. This year, Ziad Kalthoum’s astonishing Taste of Cement won the award for best feature-length documentary.

Intimate and grand. Ziad Kalthoum’s award-winning documentary Taste of Cement is an audio-visual masterpiece which neatly incorporates all of these conditions. Talal Khoury’s camera rests on silent, motionless, introverted, exhausted and hopeless faces of its subjects. He effortlessly shifts from meditative, detailed images to surprising panoramas from soaring perspectives; as is the case with the opening scene, where a narrow view of the structures of a quarry opens up to an overwhelming view of Beirut city.

The soundtrack is a sublime composition of noise and silence. Often completely independent of the visuals, the sound mostly refers to a huge site where the construction of Beirut’s tallest skyscraper is underway.

On one hand, this building process symbolises resistance, and the will to return to normality and wealth. On the other hand, it represents, in a metaphorical sense, the on-going destruction of the region. In one of the most impressive audio-visual scenes, Kalthoum combines the complex sounds and movements of the building work, undertaken in vertiginous heights, with the images of a missile tank speeding through and over a completely obliterated town somewhere in Syria. The reverberation of the heavy machinery of the workers, the blast of gunfire from the tanks, and the deafening industrial noise are all part of the same destructive process.

«We see exhausted bodies of the Syrian construction workers resting, scattered on the ground of the building site.»

Syrian workers. Occasionally, we hear the calm voice of a narrator who pronounces himself in nuanced allegorical and metaphorical comments. In the beginning of the film he talks about his first confrontation with the ocean and the expansion of his mind, even if only in the form of a simple painting that his father, a construction worker, had brought from the nearby town. Towards the end he returns to his first memory; by this point the painted wave of the ocean in the picture is crushing him down. The narrator’s voice also delivers the deeper, underlying story of Taste of Cement: “When war begins the builders have to leave for another country, where the war has just ended – waiting until war has finished sweeping through their homeland. Then they return to rebuild it.” This poignant setting of the tragedy of endless war is the philosophical setting of Kalthoum’s work.

Taste of Cement by Ziad Kalthoum

Most of the workers on the construction site are Syrian refugees, as the film establishes. This fact is relayed to us in an excellent use of the “show, don’t tell”technique, which helps underline the quality of documentary brilliance at play here. We see exhausted bodies of the Syrian construction workers resting, scattered on the ground of the building site in the evenings, surrounded by all sorts of equipment and dirt. A curfew is imposed on Syrian workers after 7PM. At the same time, racism towards refugees is spreading in Beirut as elsewhere. The political messages are seen and heard from TV screens or radios, or we see them as images on the small screens of their cell phones, which are often the only sources of light in the room. We see images of the destruction of two million Syrian homes, as many as 440,000 in Aleppo and 300,000 in the suburbs of Damascus alone. Kalthoum reflects this news on the pupils of the apparently emotionless viewer. In one of the most painful scenes of the film, civilians try to rescue bodies buried alive under rubble after a bombing – but even here, the camera view avoids voyeuristic images.

The power of memories. The film ends on a rotating camera shot. The camera itself is fixed on a moving car driving through Beirut. The image of the city is spinning endlessly, losing gravity and importance; a game of force that no one seems to dominate.

We learn that the father of the narrator was a builder too, but when he returned home from labouring with the cement, he faded out and died.

The faces of the builders on the highest floors, taking in the panoramic view of a seemingly flourishing and promising city and the surrounding ocean, seem hopeless as they are captured in Kalthoum’s camera. These construction workers are victims of their memories, or more precisely, of their forgotten memories. They do not remember a life before the war.