Film Review: Taste of Cement

Twelve hours below, Twelve hours above

Many people who must flee Syria must work under inhumane conditions in the Lebanese building sector. A new film poetically describes their conditions and is not silent about the causes for their misery

Phil Butland

A picture on the wall

 A long tracking shot through a seemingly deserted quarry. As excavators come into view, we hear the sound of drilling. Leaving the quarry and the incessant noise, we see the sprawling city of Beirut and pan into the husk of a building which is under construction.

Silence. A blank screen and a narrator’s voice in Arabic:

Two pictures have burned themselves into my memory. They follow me into my dreams. The first: when I was still a child, I came home from school. There was a familiar smell. My father is back from working abroad. I am excited. I had missed him so. I want to find him, run from room to room. Stop still. In front of me the endless sea stretches out, papered onto the kitchen wall. The white beach. The blue sky. Two palms at the side. For the first time I see the sea. My father had brought it from Beirut. I go nearer, hold my hand out, and touch the water. The sea is rough. The rolling of the waves is deafening. From this day onwards I spend much time in front of this picture. It immerses again and again.“

As the narration develops, we start to hear the sound of gentle waves, and see pictures of the real Beirut coast through a stone window frame. The screen goes black again. Construction workers start to emerge from the dark basement in the bowels of the building. They hardly look at each other as a ramshackle lift takes them into the sky.

This is the opening to “Taste of Cement“, the remarkable second feature film by Berlin-based Syrian director Ziad Kalthoum. The subject is Syrian guest workers in Beirut – although “guest” implies a sense of hospitality from their hosts that is clearly absent.

Unwanted guest workers

According to UNCHR, there are over a million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, one-sixth of the population. 58% live in extreme poverty – 5% more than last year. The real number of Syrians is Lebanon is probably 1½ million, many of whom work on poverty wages in the building industry.

Syrians who have fled their devastated cities are now rebuilding a Lebanon destroyed by years of civil war and the arbitrary Israeli bombing campaign of 2006. Yet the builders are not allowed to belong to the city that they are recreating. Banners surrounding the building site announce a “curfew for Syrian workers from 7pm. Every violation will be punished“. The group of around 200 men is entirely cut off from the surrounding society.

According to Kalthoum “during the civil war in Lebanon the Syrian army was controlling part of Lebanon and was very tough with the Lebanese people, arresting them, killing them. The Lebanese still haven’t forgotten what happened from the Syrian army. At the same moment they don‘t understand that it was just the régime who was killing them, the same régime which is killing the Syrian people – so they want to punish us in some way“. Physically separated from ordinary Lebanese people, the building workers have no way of refuting these prejudices.

Workers are filmed from a distance, emphasizing their estrangement from everyday Beirut. Occasional shots of extraordinary Lebanese landscapes show what is unattainable to them – a beauty that they can only experience from afar. This peaceful tranquillity contrasts with the brutal noise which accompanies both the tedium on the construction site and their painful memories of their war-torn homeland.

Their existence is one of “12 hours below”, sleeping on rolled up mattresses on concrete floors, and “12 hours above” working long shifts at vertiginous levels high above the city. Down in the windowless basement, the building workers watch the news of the continuing devastation of their home. Scenes of the destruction of Syrian cities are interspersed with local media reports of growing racist attacks against Syrian refugees in Lebanon, including children having their fingers chopped off.

A sad song

And yet, occasionally, the television transmits fragments of beauty. As the workers descend into the miserable basement, it broadcasts an ageing man singing these mournful lyrics:

Oh my heart, oh my heart.
Once my heart was now open, but now it is destroyed.
Eternity has left us, without any reason.
Eternity has left us, without any reason.

Oh my heart, oh my heart.
Where are those who were with us?
They have left us and no-one more is here.
Nothing remains, just the memory

Oh my heart, oh my heart…”

As the song draws to a close, the clouds open with a thunderstorm that is both beautiful and cataclysmic. The film moves directly to shots of desperate Syrian people trapped in the rubble of their former homes.

This scene is typical of the power of the film, and Kalthoum’s ability to appeal to many senses simultaneously. Aside from the beautiful images and the subtle counterposition of noise and quiet, the poetic narration tells us of smells, feelings, and of course tastes which infect us. The result is sometimes quite overwhelming.

The reluctant conscript

Ziad Kalthoum was born in Homs in 1981. His first medium-length film “Oh my Heart” was banned from screening in Syria, as it dared to show Kurdish society. His first feature film “The Immortal Sergeant” from 2012 describes his experiences as a reluctant conscript in Assad’s army.

Kalthoum deserted in 2012, hiding in Damascus for 8 months before moving to Lebanon. It was here that he started to conceive “Taste of Cement”. His aim was to “try to make something new and find another language as a commentary“, and to make a film which is “against capitalism”. He explains “the capitalist system is using these people as slaves. They don’t take care about the community. In the end, nobody takes care of human beings. Its just for the rich people.” The misery that they must suffer is the result of the inevitable drive to war of barbaric capitalism.

Kalthoum insists that the desperate situation for Syrian migrant workers is not immutable – it is the result of real decisions taken by real politicians. He blames Assad‘ s butchery for the plight of the Syrians, but is also clear that the governments which armed Assad – including the “refugee-friendly” German government – are equally culpable: Germany is the third largest creator of weapons. If they want to talk about human rights, they should start by closing down their weapons industry.”

Interlude: sketch of a woman

In the dark, dank, basement, one worker draws a sketch of a woman, eyes shut, head resting on a table. As the camera pans into the sky, the unseen narrator continues his story.

The sound of the hammer drill penetrated me. I woke up. I couldn’t move, couldn’t cry out. My house had buried me. It was in my mouth. In my nose. In my eyes. People called: ‘is there anyone there?’ They dug the whole day until they found me. That‘s what they explained to me. The taste of cement devoured my thoughts. The smell of death. I broke away. Into nothing. And suddenly found myself buried in another hole. They said: ‘there are no bombs here, no shooting!‘ But I was still surrounded by concrete. I couldn‘t get out. The last thing that I can remember: you laid there with your head on the table. Asleep. Dead.“

Occasionally, the film includes real footage smuggled out of Syria. While the workers are filmed from a distance, these scenes of destruction are viscerally close. We come face to face with a tank driving relentlessly through Syrian villages, leaving only rubble in its wake.

Aside the cacophony of building and war, we don’t hear the voices of the workers, just the narrator who relates his and his father’s experiences on the building sites. He remembers his father saying that “when the war begins, the building workers must move on to anther country, where the war has just finished. Waiting. Until it has passed through their home country. Then they return to rebuild their country.”

The decision to hear the workers only through poetic narrative is deliberate. Kalthoum explains: “the first time I was in front of [the building workers] they told me we don’t have the right to talk about who destroyed our houses in Syria, because we are afraid of the régime. And we don‘t have the right to talk about our life here inside this tower because we are afraid of the owner. I found myself in front of this community of mute people, who lost everything but don‘t have the right to talk about anything“.

The experience is international

Taste of Cement” contains many similarities with „My Father’s Wings“, Kıvanç Sezer’s recent film about Kurdish construction workers in Istanbul (review here). Both films show “guest workers”who are only valued by their reluctant hosts for the products of their labour power. They are, to quote Günther Wallraff‘s book on the subject, the “Lowest of the Low“.

Like Sezer, Kalthoum often backdrops his scenes with beautiful landscapes, which show how things might be in a more just society. But even this beauty has a sour taste. Kalthoum says “because we are in front of the ocean and in front of the city and the highway, of course its a beautiful view. But what we want to tell from the beautiful image is that not everything’s beautiful. When you‘re building a huge tower, you should also know how this tower came. Behind this tower we have a sad story. A lot of people are slaves inside the construction site”

The situation for the building workers in Kalthoum’s Beirut is even more grim than in Sezer’s Istanbul. At least the protagonists in “My Father‘s Wings”are allowed to have relationships, to talk to their families over Skype, to have a little hope. In “Taste of Cement” it is not clear how the Syrian refugees can escape their wretched isolation.

Workers of the world

Just before the film ends, the narrator recounts his second memory.

The second picture, burned into my memory. The war had started, reports of terror and bombs fell on our neighbourhood. Death followed us everywhere. One house after the next tumbled down. I came home exhausted, and went directly into the kitchen, I found my mother. Asleep. She lay with her head on the table. Time had left its traces. More than 15 years. I remembered the first time that I’d seen the sea in the kitchen. I wanted to plunge in and never return. To the war. To the ruins. To all of it. I held my hand out and touched the water. The sea reared up. The palms swayed in the wind. A wave swept me away.”

The screen goes blank. A short text appears: “DEDICATED TO ALL WORKERS IN EXILE“

Despite the interminable horror, Kalthoum is not without hope. He says of his protagonists “for me these people are against any [political] group, they are doing the act of building. I think this means we have some hope. At the end we have another community who are making something positive.“

This is important. We have become used to seeing refugees as victims, which they are, but they are so much more than that. They are workers with agency, who are capable of changing the world – if we can build the necessary solidarity. By naming the cause of the problem, Kalthoum is able suggest a way out. Until then, we have his sumptuous film to sustain us.

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