‘Taste of Cement’ Is an Impressionistic Portrait of Syrian Workers in Exile

Camden International Film Festival

Ziad Kalthoum’s cinema soars above Beirut to capture the uncanny experience of absence.

Many documentary filmmakers find their most compelling artistic truth in the “sense of place.” Richard Leacock talked about the “feeling of being there” as a governing principle of documentary, part of a tradition linking Robert Flaherty’s work to Direct Cinema and beyond. The “sense of place,” what preservationists call genius loci, is a globally resonant concept that documentary cinema is perhaps uniquely capable of capturing.

But what about a sense of absence? Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement, which recently had its North American premiere at the Camden International Film Festival, is all about the experience of exile. Its subject is a group of construction workers, Syrian men who have come to Lebanon in the wake of civil war at home. As they raise buildings in Beirut, the housing blocks of Homs and Damascus crumble under fire. Yet they are not given the opportunity to turn this growing city into their new home. Rather, their movements are heavily regulated by the Lebanese government. They live within the construction site and their curfew is 7pm. Each morning they emerge from beneath the rising skyscrapers through an enormous hole in a not-yet-wall.

But while the men themselves are trapped, watching the news of war on a single television, Kalthoum is unbound. Taste of Cement is a film made within a border, or perhaps soaring above it. By breaking the images of the Syrian Civil War out of the TV screen, he pairs the hole in the construction site with the gaping holes made by artillery fire in Syria’s cities. He is able to do even more with the builders’ smart phones, an even more intimate conduit for news from home. In one remarkable sequence, Kalthoum and cinematographer Talal Khoury show the images of war-torn Syria reflected on the pupils of their subjects.

These techniques occasionally approach abstraction, placing these men in a much broader continuum of human experience. The voiceover narration does this as well, a poetic stream of consciousness that continues throughout the film. It speaks of the reversed situation of the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990), a memory passed down to one of the Syrian workers by his father. The men begin to resemble archetypes, their position well-established by the traumas of the 20th century. “The moment you start counting floors,” the voice says, “your fingerprints vanish.” Their work dehumanizes them, severing them from their own stories and folding them into the anonymity of history.

As the film moves forward, Kalthoum’s methods become increasingly impressionistic. Frank Brummundt’s editing bounces between footage of tanks barreling down Syrian streets and a collapse in the Beirut construction site. In one especially uncanny sequence, a camera appears to have been affixed to the back of a cement mixer. Sounds of thunder echo in sounds of war. Cinema is used as a tool to collapse the distance between cities. The border, after all, does not stop these men from thinking of home.

Taste of Cement is an astonishing assertion of the experience of absence in a time of great tumult, as well as a powerfully intimate testament to the borderless space of the human mind.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.