Taste of Cement – Ziad Kalthoum (2017)

My father’s hand was the city of Beirut.

I came to Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement by accident and it’s one of those accidents that you’re grateful for. Not so long ago, I read a long article on the Guardian about our obsession with concrete. Concrete, stable, over-towering and yet destructive, is perhaps the symbol of our advanced modern societies. Kalthoum’s film is not only about this though. It’s a poetic journey in many ways; literary, cinematically, humanly.

I’m trying to remember my life before the war.

Ziad Kalthoum tells two stories. His film is set in Lebanon. The camera observes Syrian migrant workers who are employed on construction sites around Beirut. They’re rebuilding a country that has been ravaged by war; all the while war is destroying their own country. Syria, where war has been raging for eight years, is always in the background of the film. The country is for a long time an absent protagonist, the main protagonist even, and it’s in the fabric of each character, of each movement, each action. Syria is there.

But it’s crumbling. It’s being dismantled, destroyed. The director, from Homs, puts the country at the horizon. There is a feeling of longing, of desire, but also of anxiety. After a twelve-hour shift on the rooftops of Beirut’s new building complexes, the workers return to Syria. In their makeshift housings, beyond humane, they travel back home via their mobile phones. Social media allows them to follow the war and the ongoing destruction. It is here that Kalthoum merges the two locations of the film; one a war-torn country, the other in a mode of post-war reconstruction.

The sound of the sea is deafening, but the waves stand still.

Kalthoum guides the viewer through the use of a voice-over, through the use of a worker’s memories of his childhood, the times when his own father returned from work abroad, from Beirut, from the construction site. With a taste of cement. The man’s memories are vivid, almost palpable. We can imagine a young boy running towards his father, fascinated by those white hands that show the marks of hard labour. “Cement eats your skin, not just your soul,” the voice-over tells us. The food the father cooked upon his return had always tasted of cement, the young man remembers.

This taste, it is a bitter one. The film begins with breathtaking imagery. Each frame is aestheticised, photographic, marvellous. But the images contradict the voice-over. They contradict the hardships, the war at home. The second part of the film begins to make Syria, the absent protagonist of the film, visible, not only through pictures and videos on the workers’ mobile phones. The slow, almost peaceful movements of the cranes in Beirut are juxtaposed with gun turrets of tanks. The movements are the same, the purpose on opposite sides. Creation, destruction. Destruction, creation.

When your palm corrodes you stop counting the days. Time stops.

Man giveth. Man taketh.

There is a special rhythm to the film. It is contemplative, observational, poetic, but the director disrupts this rhythm several times. Those disruptions, they function as shock moments and as a link to the images of destruction in Syria. The taste of cement is present not only in those who work abroad on construction sites. It is also present in those who are buried underneath the ruins of their houses, in those who dig for survivors.

Kalthoum’s rapid editing towards the end of the film evokes the traumatic shocks of war. The routine and repetitive work processes give way to footage of destruction and of death. It is as though the film comes full circle. It is as though it points to the senseless circle of construction-destruction, the sheer painful irony of Syrians helping to rebuild one country while their own is ravaged. Taste of Cement is a look at our own conflictual nature and one cannot help but keep a bitter aftertaste.

Homo Sapiens – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (2016)

Who, or maybe what, is Homo Sapiens? Wise man, they say. But is Homo Sapiens just that? Does Homo Sapiens stand entirely for the human being we are? I’m not so sure. And I think Nikolas Geyrhalter’s superb poetic piece Homo Sapiens is, in effect, posing this question without giving answers.

Geyrhalter does not focus on the living aspects of Homo Sapiens, but of what Homo Sapiens has left behind. His film is about abandoned places, empty places, spaces where nature takes over as if man has never been there. Man exists as a spectre. He is in the buildings Geyrhalter films, the buildings which are not far from collapsing, from falling into pieces. He is in the abandoned playgrounds, in the abandoned train stations. He hovers like a ghost over every single image of Homo Sapiens. You can feel him, but you will never go beyond this feeling.

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What takes over instead is a beautiful, intriguing soundscape. I closed my eyes from time to time to listen to the sounds. I could never tell where I was, but did that really matter? The sounds took me into an eerie, unnatural world, which at times reminded me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, reinforced once I opened my eyes again and saw abandoned buildings. It felt like being in a zone, in Tarkovsky’s zona, where life and death exists in the same image.

The images might be static. They might show nothing interesting. What is interesting instead is what is going on in your mind. We’re speaking of yes boredom here. If you’re willing to take on a film of 90 minutes which shows nothing but run-down buildings, you begin to create your own narrative. What games did the children play in that playground overgrown with grass? What film did they show in that decayed filmhouse? How many people used to come every night for their evening entertainment? Who was the person who left his or her bike under a shed at that abandoned train station in Japan?

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Why did the people leave in the first place? I started to wonder why the places I saw had been abandoned. I began to think of Fukushima. I began to think of war. I had all kinds of things in my head. In fact, my mind felt very different from what the images showed. My mind was busy making up fictional stories about what happened at the places I saw. I made up fictional stories about the people who shaped those places. Who were they? And, more importantly, when were they there?

Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens is full of fascinating shots. Almost every frame is a beauty in itself. It’s incredible how much beauty you can find in destruction and abandonment. Homo Sapiens achieves this through perfect framing. This reminds me again of something I have read somewhere (God knows where!) and which applies so well to slow films: it doesn’t matter what you show. It’s a question of how you show it. You can show the most simple things, but they can become complex and special depending on how you show them. This is the case with Geyrhalter’s film.

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I suppose many people would just walk past those abandoned places, but he makes us stop for a moment. He makes us look at them, and he gives us time to appreciate what we see. Wee see the past, the present and the future. We see what we built. We see what is now decaying. And we see how the planet will look like after Homo Sapiens is gone. Regardless of what we’re building right now, nature will take over. It is nature that is wise. It is patiently waiting for its time, for its time to breathe and for its time to expand.

Slow Cinema and Chinese Painting IV

I want to continue with the slow and painterly journey today. You can find the previous three parts here, here and here. Last time, I briefly outlined the theme of verticality both in Chinese painting and in Lav Diaz’s films, with particular regard to the relation of Heaven and Earth, and the role of man in the universe.

Today, I want to add to this a brief summary of the concept of emptiness, which has its origins in Chinese painting. Emptiness never meant “empty” the way we would interpret it nowadays. Emptiness, or absence, always meant presence at the same time. It was the source of all things. Also, it has its roots in meditation. Painters meditated before they picked up a brush. They cleared, or “emptied”, their minds. This emptiness was thus a prerequisite for tranquility. This is particularly obvious in Zen painting. Here, objects are presented in front of a completely blank background.

I mentioned last week that there is always a space of emptiness sandwiched between the planes of Heaven and Earth. At least in traditional Chinese landscape painting. This emptiness was conveyed through the depiction of vast landscapes. This appears very similar to many slow films, as the landscape often plays a major role in them. Characters are often dwarfed, nature is dominant.

This is, obviously, a very literal reading. It is possible to extend the argument, though. In many slow films, but in Lav Diaz’s and Béla Tarr’s films especially, emptiness describes subjective mental states, which are then mirrored by (empty) landscapes. In Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos, for instance, emptiness stands for both the landscape – the film is set in the aftermath of typhoon Reming – and the characters and interviewees, all of which have lost either family members or their entire property. Emptiness is here more absence, more destruction than actual non-existence. However, the strong typhoon did “empty” the region. Houses, rice fields, everything is gone. It is creepy to link this to what I said earlier: emptiness is the source of something new, but unfortunately, this is very much the case here.

In relation to the landscape as a mirror of a character’s mental state – this can be linked to the original Buddhist concept of emptiness, namely dependency. We’re empty of self-existence, meaning we only exist because of many other factors. We alone, without any influences, could not and would not exist. We’re dependent. Our life is the result of a combination of circumstances. This means in short that one thing determines another. We can thus also say here that the landscape determines its inhabitants and vice versa. They’re a mirror of one another. This is exactly what we see in Diaz’s films, as well as in Tarr’s films. Particularly the latter is a genius when it comes to showing the dependency of several elements. Everything is connected.

That leaves me with two more features. Stay tuned!