'Taste of Cement': Film Review

An arresting meditation on construction and destruction.

In his second feature documentary, director Ziad Kalthoum ('The Immortal Sergeant') chronicles the lives of Syrian construction workers exiled in Beirut.

Capturing the grueling quotidian of Syrian exiles working on a construction site in Beirut, Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement shows how the affects of war can be felt in the very fabric of the places we build and inhabit. Not much actually happens in the movie, and beyond an occasional voiceover there is hardly any dialogue, yet the director skillfully uses images and sound to plunge us into lives disrupted by years of conflict, revealing a continuous cycle where structures are erected in one place and demolished in the other. It’s an impressive feat of formalistic filmmaking that has garnered several awards on the festival circuit — as well as receiving a Cinema Eye Honors nomination — and deserves further attention abroad.

Shot in vividly framed compositions by Lebanese cinematographer Talal Khoury, the film follows a group of Syrian laborers as they toil away on a high-rise in Beirut that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. Each morning, they ride an elevator up to the top, then spend the next 12 hours working in the hot sun while the city looms beneath them. At night, they are confined to a ramshackle living quarters just beneath the tower — a sign explains that Syrian workers in Lebanon must respect a 7 p.m. curfew — where they stare at television and telephone-screen images of the war raging on back in their homeland.

Speaking in voiceover, one unidentified character — none of the men are ever named in the film — recalls the story of his father traveling from Syria to Beirut to work in construction a few decades earlier, while also relating some of his dreams. But beyond that, Kalthoum never gives us any clear facts or figures, nor does he interview any of his subjects. Rather, he lets the images speak for themselves, working with editors Alex Bakri and Frank Brummundt to create a kind of visual symphony that becomes increasingly dissonant as footage from the mass bombings in Syria (in a city that looks like either Homs or Aleppo) is intercut with scenes of construction in Beirut.

The sad irony, of course, is that the men Kalthoum documents are breaking their backs to build apartment houses overseas while their own homes are being blown up on a daily basis. In one particularly disturbing sequence, we see footage of Syrians digging in the rubble for survivors, only to leave them behind when another air raid seems imminent. An earlier scene uses images taken from tanks of the Syrian Armed Forces as they roam through war-torn streets and fire on buildings that already look half-obliterated.

Kalthoum juxtaposes these moments with shots of the workers laboring on the site, in a constant back-and-forth where the “cement” of the title becomes both an element of creation and a remnant of destruction. Such a purely visual approach recalls the work of filmmakers like Nikolaus Geyrhalter or James Benning, although Kalthoum’s camera is more active and his editing more aggressive. Atmospheric sound design by Sebastien Tesch and Ansgar Frerich further envelopes us in the shifting landscapes, where the rumble of the sea or the sound of tanks rolling over debris become one and the same.

Production companies: Basis Berlin Filmproduktion, Bidayyat Audiovisual Art
Director: Ziad Kalthoum
Screenwriters: Ziad Kalthoum, Talal Khoury, Ansgar Frerich
Producers: Ansgar Frerich, Eva Komme, Tobias Sibert, Mohammad Ali Atassi
Director of photography: Talal Khoury
Editors: Alex Bakri, Frank Brummundt
Composer: Sebastien Tesch
Sound designers: Sebastien Tesch, Ansgar Frerich
Sales: Syndicado

In Arabic
85 minutes