BEIRUT: Once upon a time, a journalist was interviewing a Moroccan filmmaker about her latest documentary. It centered on former political prisoners, the miseries of detention, and their families’ reflections on the activism that prompted the state to destroy the lives of their loved ones.
It was a bit incongruous. The subject was the stuff of old-school investigative documentary, yet the film was most notable not for informants’ frank testimonials, but for its lyricism – footage of disused architecture, arid landscape and emotionally maimed former detainees, saying nothing.
The journalist wondered whether the formal poetry of the work was needed to compensate for what people could not say, for fear of reprisals.
The filmmaker’s mobile phone rang, pre-empting the question.
“Taste of Cement,” the 2017 doc of Syrian filmmaker Ziad Kalthoum, is a feature-length essay about Syrian migrant laborers living and working in a high-rise development north of Beirut.
The camera looks on as refugee-laborers move through their daily routines. Emerging, ant-like, from underground (their improvised quarters being lodged in the structure’s basement), they are lifted a dozen stories or so to the high steel. Twelve hours later they return underground to eat, to pore over images from their country’s immolation, to sleep.
A major reason for the film’s essayistic quality is the striking cinematography of DP Talal Khoury. “Cement” opens with a visual tour de force – a drone shot of an inland quarry, somewhere near Lebanon’s coast road. The drone skims the vertical rock face for a minute or so, as if scrutinizing it for signs of violence, before ascending and flying toward the horizon and the beige-taupe blur of Beirut. The city’s seldom looked more sinister.
Working in counterpoint to Khoury’s footage are two segments from Syria’s war. In the first, cameras mounted on the turrets of regime tanks follow them navigating a ruined city, before opening fire. Another – which elevates the pulse and provides the heart of the film – captures snatches of nighttime rescue efforts among the ruins of a flattened apartment block.
At no point are any of the laborers shown to speak, neither to the filmmakers nor to one another. The footage is accompanied by a voiceover (of Ayham Majid Agha) recounting a man’s recollections of his relationship with his father – who worked on Beirut’s mammoth post-1990 reconstruction.
(It’s unclear whether the voiceover text was derived from an off-the-record testimony, or testimonies, or is fictional. In the latter case, Kalthoum shares writing credits with Khoury and co-producer Ansgar Frerich.)
The film’s title is derived from the voiceover, specifically two things the narrator says stick in his memory. One is the smell of cement that wafted off his father whenever he returned from Beirut. The odor was so pervasive that, as it gradually receded once his father returned home for good, the man himself seemed to vanish.
The anecdote could be an ironic reference to a sequence in Mohamed Malas’ “The Night,” 1992, in which a Syrian boy’s father returns from the Israel-Palestine war coated in mud, only to dissolve while bathing.
Reinforcing the voiceover is the score and sound design of Sebastian Tesch. There are moments when the job site’s ambient clatter provides real-time accompaniment but, like much contemporary documentary, the sound of “Cement” aspires to be more than just illustrative.
While his father was back on a return trip, the narrator says, he hung a poster of the Mediterranean on the kitchen wall. While the voiceover recalls staring into the image and wanting to leap into it, the audience hears waves lapping against the shore.
The Mediterranean isn’t integral to this story of these men, not literally, but the sea is a narrative and aural motif of the film – whether representing escape or death – and comes back into play as a hose disgorges cement over a bed of rebar. A few minutes of file footage, showing military equipment on the seafloor off the Lebanese coast, is skillfully used in assembling the airstrike rescue sequence.
Kalthoum attracted attention in 2012 with the release of his prize-winning first feature, “The Immortal Sergeant.” Shot as the Syrian revolution was just breaking out – while the filmmaker was fulfilling his compulsory military service, guarding a disused cinema named after Bashar Assad’s deceased brother – much of this doc is shot from the director’s shoulder, where the camera lens was concealed. He migrated to Beirut in 2013 and began developing “Cement.”
Since its premiere at Visions du Reel, where it won the best film award, “Cement” has taken several more prizes, including one for best feature-length nonfiction at the Dubai International Film Festival. It was also nominated for the best European film award at the 2017 Doc Alliance Awards.
In the weeks before DIFF, the film had a soft premiere in Beirut, where the audience was overwhelmingly approving. Yet, for all of the compassion of its premise, the beauty of its cinematography and the lyrical intelligence of its sound design and editing, the film does have shortcomings, arising from the challenging circumstances in which it was made.
One of these, which Kalthoum discussed while in postproduction, was his characters’ unwillingness to speak on camera. They refused to discuss the Syrian war because they feared regime retribution. Nor would they discuss their Lebanon employment, as they were certain the developer would punish them if the details of the project came to light. His subjects’ silence made the voiceover necessary.
For Western audiences, the silence of the workers at the center of “Cement” may resemble a pretentious, artistic flourish that strips the men of their agency and individuality – reproducing the helplessness of media depictions of refugees and migrant workers.
For some, the 85-minute running time may also seem overlong for an essay film mostly comprised of poetic voiceover and beautiful photography. Effective as the opening aerial shot is, when it comes to Mediterranean skylines, less is more. The drone-mounted camera can quickly appear gimmicky to the viewer and subsequent sequences – one that finds the drone circling the construction site, for instance – are reminiscent of footage from a promotional video.
“Cement” would be altogether more powerful if it slimmed down. Yet, in exhibition terms, midlength films are invariably neglected compared to features, so the pressure to have the film come in close to 90 minutes is difficult for a young filmmaker to resist.
“Taste of Cement” remains a very well devised feature that packages some excellent work from its several collaborators. It also makes you think about the film Kalthoum might have made, had circumstances been different.