Taste of Cement (2017): Written by Ziad Kalthoum, Ansgar Frerich, and Talal Khoury, directed by Ziad Kalthoum. Running Time: 85 minutes.
Unlike last year’s Human Flow, a sprawling epic of a film that sought to cover the global nature of the current global refugee crisis, Taste of Cement is hyper-focused on just a handful of Syrian refugees in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, Syria’s closest neighbor and currently the unwilling host to over a million Syrian refugees- a quarter of the population.
The men have found work to get by on as construction workers; by day, they scuttle around the top of a massive highrise that seems to loom endlessly over the city and sea surrounding it, like a modern-day Tower of Babel. By night, they sit together and sleep in a large basement hold directly beneath the construction site, which they enter via a slanted hole and staircase cut into the concrete. Because of discrimination and threats they face from locals, Syrian workers strictly required to stay in their work area during nighttime.
Their world is one of constant, unceasing noise and withering heights. Cutting stone and wood, mixing cement, working brick by brick and level by level as the building stretches ever-higher into the sky. The rest of the city and its buildings appear so miniscule and far away compared to where they work, like they are merely a painted backdrop, nothing real to touch or connect with. The wiry, uncovered metal rods waiting to be covered with cement are like bars on a jail cell, keeping the workers permanently separated from the world around them. They are surrounded on all sides, day and night, by cold hard cement and a pitiless sun. And always, to the West, the seemingly endless blue of the sea.
What sort of film is this? A documentary in part, certainly- all the footage is of real workers doing their real jobs- but not entirely. No one on-screen speaks. There is a narrator, but whether he is one of the workers relating his specific tale, or an actor hired to read the part, or whether what he says is even the true story of a single person or a collection of several people’s stories combined into one, are all things we do not know and are not told. And that’s rather beside the point. Films like this ultimately are not about what’s “true,” but rather about what’s real; and this film’s essence is powerfully, viscerally real.
If there is a structure to the film at all, it’s that the scenes loosely follows several days of their work, with the scenes going more or less sequentially from morning to day to night and back again. It is at night, when the chatter of a jackhammer can no longer distract them, when the news repeatedly plays scenes of bombing and destruction in their homeland, that the nightmares come, and the film strikes with its most deeply provocative footage. An image of falling bombs overlaying a man on his cot, trying to fall asleep. Videos of explosions shown, not directly on a TV screen, but reflected in the eyes of those watching. Scenes of carnage and destruction that play more as dream, or rather nightmare, sequences, as opposed to reality. Perhaps that’s the only way to live with it.
The second dream sequence brings this to a profound climax; we are stumbling through a corridor filled with what looks like rain; the camera is in slow-motion, moving as if through thick water. The corridor leads to a door. The color is washed out, the sound is heavily muted, until we go through the door, and sound and focus return; the screams in the aftermath of the bombing ring out, painful and clear. Cracking stones, screaming children, men yelling. The most terrifying image is in a part of a building that has collapsed; a man has crawled into a tight space in the wreckage and is slowly shoveling out refuse. It was only after the film had cut to this moment several times that I understood why. Something finally shifts behind the man’s body- it’s a head. A living, blinking head, protruding from the wreckage, caked in cement. The sound eventually seems to overwhelm the camera itself, and we pull back through the door, and are once more encased by a watery-like silence.
Early in the movie, the narrator seems almost amused by the idea that the workers are all below the city at night, unseen, and above it during the day, still unseen. Until he realizes that this is merely an illusion; they are always below Beruit, surrounded by sea and cement, alone, waiting for the next wave coming to break upon their heads.