Taste of Cement directed by Ziad Kalthoum, screening Monday 24 April 10:00 at the Salle Communale in Nyon at the Visions du Réel film festival.
Film review by Rachel Beacher
Syrian director Ziad Kalthoum, exiled in Lebanon in 2013 after running away from military service, has made a beautiful and moving documentary about Syrian builders enslaved in the building sites of Beirut.
Working on the black market without rights, homes or personal lives, the men have a forced curfew of 7 pm and sleep underground like rats in a country that has increasingly turned against its massive war refugee population.
Yamen, the poetic narrator and subject of the film, recalls his life in Syria, including his father telling him: “When war begins, the builders have to leave for a different country where war just ended.”
Through stunning imagery and powerful use of silence at the very top of a skyscraper in construction, in contrast with the noisy city below, Kalthoum masterfully expounds the concept that the story of war and peace is a story of cement. As Yamen describes how he once was trapped under a collapsed building in Syria, surrounded by the smell of cement – “the smell of death” – you realise that it is often not bombs and shells that kill civilians in wartime but the very buildings they live in, the buildings that Yamen and his fellow workers are damned to spend 12 hours a day reconstructing in a country that is recovering from its own civil war.
In a question and answer session after yesterday’s film, Kalthoum explained how he gained access to the building site by telling the developer he was making a documentary about construction, and was banned from the site when he was discovered to be filming the Syrian workers in their underground dormitory.
The expensive and modern machinery used to put up the towers seems from another world when we watch footage of a chaotic and noisy rescue attempt at a collapsed building in Syria, where a man tries unsuccessfully to dig out a distressed child with what looks like a tin plate. In a subtle, innovative way, Taste of Cement encourages us to ask ourselves what kind of a world values buildings more than people, and spends billions on creating a city only to knock it down again.