Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement is getting released on May 24. We sat down with the director to speak about his film.
Ziad, your film premiered at the Visions du réel Festival in Switzerland last year and won the main prize there. Since then, you have been travelling around festivals with the film. How have the reactions been?
You know, many people tell me after the screenings: it’s my first time watching this kind of documentary. And this is important for me, because making this “unconventional” documentary was so difficult in the beginning. When Talal Khoury, the DoP, and me started making the film in Lebanon many people told me: “Ziad, this is not a documentary, you don’t have a main character, you don’t have anyone speaking, you are not following any of the workers to show their lives or to talk with them”. And I told them: “There are no rules in art!” It is so easy to make a classical documentary and to put someone in front of your camera and then in the editing room you cut their dialogue and you chose what you want. I didn’t want to make a film like that. For me, there is no difference between fiction and documentary, you know? A film is a film. There are no rules to tell you: this is a documentary or this is a fiction film. It’s just a film. And in our case, we did film real life, real people, real situations, but we chose a different language for our subject matter, different from a classical documentary.
Yes, especially your use of sound design is so striking.
Yes, often in a documentary people don’t care about sound. They just fix it and make it clearer, they add some music, and that’s enough. But for me, sound is an element as important as the image. We are hearing and we are seeing. So it’s very important to make something that’s a mix between sound and image. And here, we did not use music, all sounds are taken from what we shot. We recorded in the building, we recorded the machine’s sounds and afterwards, Ansgar Frerich, my producer and sound designer, built the atmosphere. He made a symphony of the building and the people, and sometimes you feel you are with them and sometimes there’s a contrast between two completely different atmospheres. And this is also part of the film’s language.
It’s guiding the audience to another level, from one level to the next. And this is especially important as we basically repeat the same day throughout the film. We have a first and a second day, and it’s kind of like a repetition, but the sound design makes it completely different from the first day to the second.
How did you develop this character of the voice-over that joins in? It feels kind of like a meta-character, we don’t know who he is, we don’t know who speaks, but he could be anyone.
I heard a lot of stories from the construction workers. One day we were shooting on the roof – if you remember this scene where one of the construction workers is standing on the roof looking across the city and the camera is behind him – and I was asking him: “What do you think about this city? Because you can’t cross it, you can’t get out after 7pm and you’re here every day, in front of the sea and the city.” And he told me: “You know, after a while this city is just like a wallpaper for me”. It was from there that I started creating my fictional story of a worker whose father was also construction worker when he was a child and that he brought back this wallpaper where he found himself in front of the ocean for the first time in his kitchen. And so 15 years later, this man flees Syria after the Civil War and finds himself in front of another wallpaper. Especially the last scene of the film, where one of them is sitting alone, with the sunset and the ocean, for me it’s kind of like a complete wallpaper. You know, like these kinds of cheesy wallpapers from Hawaii or something like that. So we tried to collect these stories about two generations, him and his father, because now we are seeing these two generations of Syrian workers in Lebanon. The story didn’t specifically happen to one of them, but it comes from them. It happened to all of them.
How did you go about shooting? Did you have this structure already in mind when you started?
We had to wait a long time to get permission to shoot. We were looking for a huge tower, I wanted a real community of workers, not just a small group. So one day, after a year of waiting, my line producer told me to come look at a place. So I found myself at the location, in front of that black hole that you see in the film, where the workers go down into the ground or come up and the first image that came to my mind was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. So I looked to Talal Khoury and I told him: we have to change our strategy completely.
We only had eleven days to shoot and so we concentrated on filming the people, their circular movements, from the first time they open their eyes to the next morning when they’re opening their eyes again. We decided to tell the whole story in this circle, without the need to do interviews, just following one group and showing how the system uses them as slaves. How they work and eat together, watch their houses being destroyed on TV together and going to bed together at the same time. So the perspective we took on, the camera perspective, was more from the system’s side: how does the system look at the people? Just as a group, without names or biographies, without any history and without any future. It’s like the time has stopped and they’re just moving like hamsters in a wheel. The system uses them like machines.
And that’s also why the machines in Taste of Cement are a character, the tanks and the cranes belong together in the same movement, they are drawing the same circles. It’s this kind of repetition – after the Lebanese war another war –, of making war to rebuild again and to destroy again that I wanted to show. Not only the workers, but the system too is repeating itself.
Like a Sisyphean task.
Like Sisyphus, yes. Actually, at first I wanted to name the film The Sons of Sisyphus. It’s the same idea, every morning these people climb up with a huge basket of cement, they put it on the roof and they go down again to do the same thing again the next morning. What is changing inside the circle is just that it’s a new floor, every two weeks or so they have a new storey. So we are talking about a capitalist version of it, where we go up and up and up.
It’s such a strong image to think about these political structures through the material of cement.
Yes, I believe we have a period of cement between Syria and Lebanon. When the war in Lebanon was over, they invited the first generation of Syrian workers to come over. And these people spent ten, fifteen years working in Lebanon to collect a little bit of money to then come back to Syria to build their own houses for their family. And with the start of the war in Syria these houses in turn got destroyed, turned into dust through explosions.
From powder to house and to powder again. The Syrian people could basically taste their houses through the cement. And then you run away from this, you then find yourself abroad, in another home, but again surrounded by cement.