The Fiction of Beirut: Reframing Labour Migration in Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement

News from home: images of destruction in a Syrian city. Film stills from Taste of Cement. Copyright Ziad Kalthoum.
Brenda Hollweg shows how Taste of Cement, part of the recent global growth of the essay film, explores Beirut through the perspective of its migrant workforce, unearthing the city's history and role in regional conflicts, as well as flows of labor.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “The Essay Film and The City.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Film-essayistic enquiries into urban life are as old as the ‘genre’ of the essay film itself. In the 1920s, they were inextricably linked to the shape-shifting centres of Paris, Berlin or Moscow. As a performative and self-reflexive mode of documentary practice and an unorthodox form of cine-heresy, essay films thrive in times of crisis, and these cities were barometers for the time’s conflicting interests and desires. In the 1960s and 70s, with the global outreach of the essay film, metropoles such as New York or Buenos Aires were at the centre of a wider emancipatory and interventionist cine-politics practiced through this form. The last two decades register a further increase in essay film production and exhibition. In these films, large urban centres like Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul or Beirut become sites of exploration and intervention that allow the film essayist to resist – on an aesthetic and political level – the often problematic implications of accelerated forms of globalization, labour migration, exile or war for the individual or a specific collective.

Taste of Cement (2017), by Syrian-born filmmaker Ziad Kalthoum, is a case in point. The cine-essay juxtaposes notions of a totalizing gaze with the depressing reality of a group of Syrian construction workers hired to build one of the many new skyscrapers that are currently transforming the skyline of Beirut in the aftermath of the civil war and the 1982 Lebanon war, during which most of West Beirut was under siege by Israeli troops. With its long-standing history of labour migration from Syria, the capital functions as a point of departure for the essayistic enquiry into Lebanon’s invisible workforce.1For further information see John Chalcraft, The Invisible Cage: Syrian Migrant Workers in Lebanon (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009). Due to the on-going armed conflict in Syria, these workers are also refugees, and the film thus further examines the psychological implications of this conflict on those living in exile.

A variety of close up and medium long shots show these men working on the skyscraper at vertiginous heights, standing on mesh wire, hammering, welding or bending metal parts. Against the imposing industrial architecture and sheer massiveness of the material their bodies appear small and fragile, yet resilient.

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Restrictive work regulations do not allow these men to leave the premises: each evening, they climb back down into an unfurnished and semi-dark area under ground where they eat, sleep and watch promotional trailers for terrorist causes or the news from the latest bombings in Syria on television or their smart phones. Such scenes link and contrast processes of construction and destruction. Here, below ground or on top of the crane cab, a day has a different temporality and soundscape than one lived by an ordinary citizen in Beirut.

In various scenes the confined existence of the Syrian refugees/workers is further juxtaposed with broad vistas of central Beirut from their perspective several hundred meters above ground. Viewers are provided with a totalizing perspective, one that is historically associated with positions of power and control. It is the perspective of the colonizer or the cartographer. In the Syrian context this perspective calls up a history of hegemony over Lebanon that ended in 2005, when, under international and regional pressure, all Syrian regular army troops stationed in the country since 1976, including the Syrian intelligence apparatus, were pulled back into Syrian territory. In Kalthoum’s essay film, however, this perspective originates from a marginalized position, rather than one of hegemony and control.

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For the Syrian refugee/worker Beirut in the distance remains but a faint idea: it is something that meets the eye but is not desired. These men, as their individual voice-over narratives underpin, are mostly concerned with life at home; their gaze is turned inwards and beyond Beirut. The view from the skyscraper is here used in an ironic way, to foreground their experience of dislocation and profound feelings of disconnection. Cut off from their homeland, confined to the construction site, safe but unable to relate to ‘the other’ (city, culture, nation), Beirut for these Syrian men remains just ‘wallpaper’.2Ziad Kalthoum, ‘Video interview: Ziad Kalthoum on Taste of Cement’, 5min, Doc Alliance Films.

Taste of Cement shares its interest in the psychological implications of war for the formation of subjectivity, trans/national identity and cultural memory/trauma with a handful of recent essayistic works. These include both renowned examples such as Letter to a Refusing Pilot (Akram Zaatari, 2013) and The Atlas Work (Walid Raad, 1989–2004) and less well-known essay films made by women, such as Birds of September (Sarah Francis, 2013) or BerlinBeirut (Myrna Maakaron, 2004). In her short visual essay, Maakaron is seen to simultaneously cycle through Berlin and Beirut: the selective choice of locations, swift camera movements, seamless editing and reflective voice-over foreground the transitive and transnational nature of her urban encounters. The non-locatable ‘BerlinBeirut’ lingers on as interstitial space between two actions, perceptions, sound and visual images.

Taste of Cement – as well as BerlinBeirut – are not, strictly speaking, films about Beirut in the classical sense of the ‘city symphony’. Rather, they reflect a practice of politically inflected philosophical enquiry that allows their makers to work with or alongside the historical and geopolitical specificities of this city to develop a larger argument about the human condition in times of what Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘liquid modernity.’ To that effect, their approach to the city is operational rather than purely representative. They make use of different formal, narrative and cinematographic strategies of alienation to invoke what I here call, with reference to Jacques Rancière, the fiction of Beirut. Such ‘fiction’ is not simply a way to imagine reality but to create a change in the aesthetic regime, by ‘building new relationships between reality and appearance, the individual and the collective’ and thereby open up possibilities for alternative modes of apprehension.3Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics(London/New York: continuum, 2010).

The critical perspective that is engendered in these essay films is also one that originates from ‘within planetary inhabitations’.4Jennifer Gabrys, ‘Becoming Planetary’, e-fluxarchitecture. Gabrys recurs here on a concept developed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in Imperatives to Re-Imagine the Planet (Vienna: Passagen Verlag, 1999), 44. These are explored in Kalthoum’s film through the hybrid figure of the Syrian refugee/labour migrant for whom construction work is both a plight and a survival strategy, or in Maakaron’s visual essay through cycling. This activity calls up other essay films made by women in a Berlin context, such as Cynthia Beatts’ cinematic diptych Cycling the Frame (1988) and The Invisible Frame (2009). Beatts’ work sees British actress Tilda Swinton cycle first along the still existing and, in the sequel, along the ‘invisible’ Berlin wall. Here, as in BerlinBeirut, the peculiar speed, rhythm and embedded perspectiveof the cyclist, one that allows for detail, chance, slow engagement and exploration, gain significance in contradistinction to the accelerated modes of looking, travelling and potential information overload that mark our present encounters with urbanity. Such a planetary praxis from within seeks ‘to unsettle figures of totality and regulation in order to attend to the incommensurate, the unjust and the yet to be recognized’.5Gabrys, ‘Becoming Planetary’, e-fluxarchitecture.


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