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.

The year after Dayton – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (1997)

Since summer last year, I have slowly but surely made my way through the filmography of Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter, who I have started to perceive as one of the most important filmmakers working today. He is the European equivalent to Wang Bing, albeit more composed. His films allow us to see what we usually wouldn’t see. He tells the stories of those who lack listeners. He is the listener, and so are we. The Year After Dayton, his second documentary, is set in Bosnia the year after the peace treaty has been signed. The 90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the ensuing collapse of Yugoslavia, were dominated by war in Europe.

I was born in 1988 and was well aware through TV news that my childhood was filled with news of brutal conflicts that felt like sort of next door, rather than at the other end of the world. There was not only Bosnia. The clearest I remember is the war in Kosovo, primarily because this was the first time I consciously heard adults around me speaking of the German army and their work there. We also had a new family moving into the house where we lived. They came from Kosovo as refugees, and one of the daughters became one of my best friends in the early 2000s. I learned a lot about conflicts, about Islam, and human suffering during that time.

The Year After Dayton is with a running time of over three hours a long film, but the time spent on the subject is absolutely necessary. Geyrhalter divides the film into four parts, four seasons, which allows us to see a change within the first 12 months after the Dayton peace treaty came into effect. The Bosnian war lasted three-and-a-half years, which incidentally coincides with the films running time in hours, and it was a bloodshed beyond description, not long after Europe had found peace once more in 1945. But as Geyrhalter’s film shows, the years of conflict became a starting point for a development which we still see today. Several interviewees in the film tell us that life before the war was peaceful because no one cared about the concept of national identity. Croats, Serbs, Muslims – they had lived alongside one another and one’s nationality or religion wasn’t an issue. The war has changed this.

One girl, a refugee who had to flee the violence with her mother, is interviewed while sitting on a blanket in the grass. She tells us about a friend she used to have, her best friend. They used to spend a lot of time together, but now she no longer wants to see her because she is a Serb, and Serbs killed her father. It doesn’t matter that her friend didn’t actually kill her father. It’s the nationality that counts, and she can no longer be friends with Serbs. The selection of interviews shows that the war has created a rift where once used to be a multicultural community.

“Every shepherd knows what’s good and what’s bad, but the governments don’t know this.”

Geyrhalter makes us listen to the simple people, those who were used as pawns and who lost everything. One woman tells us that she has lost 16 members of her family, her husband has lost 17. The people the director speaks to have lost their house, their job, friendships. They have lost limbs. They are no longer the same person. One boy we get to know hasn’t been to school for almost four years. We meet a woman who leaves the house for the first time in four years to see how the streets look like. It is a sad walk. There is little else but rubbles and destruction. Ruins everywhere you look. Geyrhalter films the woman from behind, allowing us to see the landscape of destruction which she sees.

There is no love after Dayton.”

The Year after Dayton is a film about a huge sinkhole which has opened under the feet of people and which has sucked in everything that life had to offer before the war. Dayton challenges the way we speak about film. I, too, have said earlier that the film was about something. Everything – painting, literature, music, film – is always about something. Or so we have learned. But Dayton is about the opposite. Nothing isn’t an adequate word in this context, although what we see in the film is essentially what has remained after the war, which resembles nothing the people had known before. Nothing remains, and it is this nothing that the film speaks about. It is not just loss that is expressed in the film. There is a deep sense of this sinkhole, a sort of anno zero. The lengthy interviews, a trademark of Geyrhalter, give voice to an emotional void; a numbness that feels like resignation. Life continues, must continue. Yet one can sense change. What we see through Geyrhalter’s camera is the first generation implicated in the conflict. What we can sense, on the other hand, is the struggle of those who come afterwards, those who have to make sense of this brutal legacy.

As with Pripyat and Elsewhere, The Year After Dayton leaves one with an almost bitter aftertaste, caused by several questions at once: what’s next? What has since happened to those we have come to know? Is the memory of the war kept alive? What does the next generation do with this dark past? What remains today, over twenty years after the release of the film?

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

My, my, my…another strong arthouse film this year. And another one which is too good to be written about, if I’m honest. There are films which cannot be described in words. Sebastian Mez’s Postcards from the Verge (2017) is one of those films, a film that, like postcards, takes you on a journey into a different land. That land or these lands, to be correct, are Israel and Palestine.

The film starts with a black screen and no sound. After a while, the image of a fire burning in the far background of the black frame shapes up. The camera remains with the fire, lingering on it, focuses on it. This very first shot gives us an idea, a feeling, of what the next seventy odd minutes will be like: they will invite us to observe, to be in the very moments the director proposes to be in.

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

Mez’s film consists of chapters. Each chapter has a very specific aesthetic, especially visually. The first chapter stunned me because it felt as though I was looking at something through a third eye. The frame was structured in such a way that it gave the impression of an eye through which you observed, in wide angle shots, the landscape of Israel and Palestine. The director uses a stark black-and-white contrast for most of his frames, a contrast that is, for someone who loves black-and-white photography as much as I do, a real pleasure to look at. It’s the sort of visual aesthetic that makes my heart jump.

For a very long time in the film, there is nothing but images. Mez shows us the landscape of conflict, a conflict that has been ongoing for several decades, and which seems to find no end. There is one frame that struck me. It was a landscape shot, a slow pan, if I remember correctly, but perhaps my memory tricks me. What is important is that there is a tank in that landscape and because of the director’s use of high contrast black-and-white, you don’t see it at first. To me, this is a very good depiction of this conflict. Violence, and everything that embodies it, has become part of the fabric of those countries. Wherever you go, there is military; in the streets, at checkpoints, etc It has become normal, and no one sees it anymore. Just like you might not see the tank in that very frame because it is no longer standing out in a region that is in constant upheaval.

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

At some point a voice over comes in. The voice over disrupts the contemplative nature of the images and comments on the conflict. But it’s not going into details. It’s a simple observation: “I think peace will be difficult to find because we want the same thing. The Jews want Al Aqsa to destroy it and build their own temple on it, and the Arabs want Al Aqsa to pray.” The viewer is left with this thought, an idea that seems viable but that goes beyond the complex political circumstances that we have come to know. It is an observation from the inside, with a take on the conflict that goes beyond the violence that saturates our thinking.

Mez lets us alone with this thought, and continues his visual journey through the landscape of conflict – in a letter boxed super-wide angle (does that even exist?), for example. The effect of this is interesting. The wide angle allows us to breathe. We can easily shift around our gaze on a horizontal axis. At the same time, however, the letter box around the image contracts it. It limits our gaze on a vertical axis. And the (metaphorical) vertical axis is the one of feeling and experience (if we think back to Maya Deren’s thoughts on the subject). A contracted vertical axis in a film about a conflict where feelings are numbed…

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

Which brings me to the film’s fourth chapter, titled Vivid Memories. Overall, the film is like a photo album, and this becomes most evident in Vivid Memories. The frames are almost still images. Or perhaps they are still images. Or maybe Mez uses super slow-motion. In any case, these images are an embodiment of remembering, of vivid memories, just as the title of the film’s chapter proposes. The frames felt like memories. They reminded me of parts of Chris Marker’s La Jetee. There is something tangible in those images, often dreamlike, blurry at first, then becoming clearer with time.

With Postcard from the Verge, Mez has created lasting images, postcards that stay with you. The final chapter of the film speaks about silence. In fact, it doesn’t. This chapter is quiet, almost completely silent…

Day 5 – Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (Diaz)

I admit that I have cheated a bit. I didn’t watch the whole six hours in one go. Not the second time. I did so the first time, though. I watched it at the Edinburgh Film Festival last year. So while I am cheating, I’m not really. This film happened to become a very convenient subject for today’s blog. I had to re-watch it for the chapter I’m working on.

Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012) precedes Norte (2013), and is by all means a Lav Diaz film; shot in black-and-white, giving his characters space and time to develop in their own pace, and dealing with controversial issues that have arisen in the context of colonialism and dictatorship in the Philippines. There is a lot you can say about the film. I found it to be his most complex, and most powerful film to date.

Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, Lav Diaz

In short, Florentina tells the story of a young woman of the same name who goes through horrific atrocities committed by her father, and the men he sells her to. She is repeatedly raped and beaten. She has developed CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative condition of the brain, which – as we can see in the film – causes memory loss and severe headaches, and leads to a very slow death. Florentina does have a second narrative strand, which merges with the first around four hours into the film, but the film is nevertheless about Florentina, and her daughter Lolita, or Loleng (her nickname).

Cinematically, I find it significant that Diaz never shows the atrocities. Here and there he shows Florentina’s father being rough on her, but he shows neither the rapes nor the beatings. Everything happens off-screen. The viewer is therefore forced to listen to screams and cries of help. It is a hugely effective method of filmmaking in this case. The uncertainty of what is really happening behind the walls to Florentina is an excruciating pain for the viewer, who is taken on a very intimate journey with a woman who goes through hell.

Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, Lav Diaz

There is also an interesting dichotomy between sound and silence in the film, with silence being predominant in her dream-like states, whenever she sees The Giants, which have a historical meaning. But if I start going into this, this entry will never find a worthy ending. So instead, I want to briefly point to the fact that Florentina is a metaphor. The film is not just about an individual. The young woman functions as an example for the whole of Philippine society. In a Q&A that followed the screening at the EIFF last year, Diaz spoke about the effects of colonialism and dictatorships on today’s society. He put Florentina as an individual on the same level as Philippine society. CTE is functions as a drastic and explicit illustration of what colonialism can do to nations.

The repeated maltreatment by Spanish, American, British and Japanese colonisers took its toll on the people. Diaz equated this with the repeated beatings Florentina suffers in the film. Indeed, “rape” has become a historical term these days. There is the rape of Austria (after the Nazis annexed the country). There is the rape of Jugoslawia, of Nanking in China, etc Rape no longer stands for the human act itself. It has become a metaphor for one country’s maltreatment in war of another country. It is a term, which has come to denote simply “power of one agent over another”, no matter in what form.

Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, Lav Diaz

So if we think about the treatment of Florentina as an individual, we have to see this in the context of Philippine history (which is dark, I’ve read about it). It is a clever cinematic construct. It criticises predominantly Western nations for getting rid of Philippine culture, and often, Philippine dignity, without being very explicit about it. The film is told through a metaphor, and it is the only slow film I know of that does this in such a successful manner.