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ASTRA 2017

Taste of Cement: Living without being alive

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- Ziad Kalthoum’s highly estheticized documentary delves into the despair of Syrian refugees

Taste of Cement: Living without being alive

Following an extensive festival circuit, Ziad Kalthoum’s impressive documentary Taste of Cement [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
is now competing for the main award at the 24th edition of Astra Film Festival, Romania’s biggest documentary gathering (16 to 22 October, Sibiu). An efficient exploration of the deep scars that the past and the life lived as a refugee leave on the soul, the documentary offers a new approach to one of the most powerful documentary topics of the present day.

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Lebanon, sprawling Beirut. Between the sky and the sea, we see an unfinished skyscraper. Silent workers robotically move in a symphony of noises. Cement is poured and flows like liquid, already carrying the threat of its future immobility in its lazy movements. The workers can’t taste it now, but its flavour is forever carved into their memories. They are Syrian refugees, caught between the earth and the sky, between life and death, their evenings haunted by other noises and images, those of bombings, buildings collapsing and death.

What is immediately clear from Taste of Cement is that, despite the director’s efficiency in building contrasts that create a map of danger and loss, those of us watching these documentaries from a cosy cinema seat in a country unaffected by war will never be able to approximate and assimilate the entire trauma experienced by the refugees. No matter how heart-breaking the documentaries and fiction features about their plight are, the screen protects us. Those are other lives, in other places.

One of the documentary’s biggest strengths lies in the way that Kalthoum plays with frames. They are omnipresent in his film. We have the sea, the sky, highway lanes on which hundreds of cars move freely. They all convey the idea of freedom, but is freedom truly attainable? Always showing them through a window or a door, or from behind the vertical or horizontal lines of iron bars, the documentary suggests not.

Hope and the lack of it are simultaneously present in the frame, as we soon find out that the workers cannot leave the skyscraper’s premises, spending their waking hours working on its various floors and the evenings and nights in its basement. They are prisoners in limbo, caught between a past they had to flee and a highly uncertain future. 

With an eye for symmetry and visual rhythm, the documentary is greatly aided by the musicality of the construction noises. Silence and mechanical sounds reunite in a symphony of the construction site, with a touching voice over revealing the deeply emotional, poetic and personal philosophy of the refugee. But the film's true power lies in a change of pace as efficient as a shot of the interior of a boat in Gianfranco Rosi’s Golden Bear-winner Fire at Sea [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Gianfranco Rosi
film profile
]

Taste of Cement was produced by Basis Berlin (Germany) and co-produced by Bidayyat Audiovisual Arts (Syria). The project received backing from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, Doha Film Institute, and Screen Institute Beirut. It is being internationally handled by Syndicado (US).

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