A group of Syrians have escaped their war torn country to the safety of Beirut, Lebanon, where they work on a construction site. As a result of a government curfew on refugees, their only contact with the outside world is a hole in the concrete through which they pass to begin their day at work. That is how the film is billed but it’s reality offers much more depth and insight into the turmoil suffered by Syrian refugees.
Narrated by one of the construction workers, the film is unique in the fact that we are never truly introduced to the protagonist, nor is there dialogue amongst the characters. The 85-minute film is simply explained using a few sentences interspersed between heavy imagery and symbolism.
Spanning the lifecycle of concrete, the film shows the daily life of the construction workers who live in the basement of the site on which they are building a 22-floor skyscraper.
We are told that at first they believed that they lived below Beirut for 12 hours of the day and soared above it for 12. However it is evident as time passes that this is not the case; Beirut is always rises above them even as they stand tens of metres above its coast.
The workers are trapped on site and live in squalor. They have no hopes and appear to go about their lives almost in robotic style which is broken only by nightly updates regarding the death and destruction taking place in their homeland.
The narrator relays the story of his relationship with his father who also worked as a construction worker in Beirut. Concrete has featured heavily throughout his life, he explains, “we could taste the concrete in every bite my father fed us”.
After his father retired and returned to Syria to rebuild the family home, the war broke out and once again the lead character was forced to eat concrete, this time as a result of an air strike which left him buried under rubble.
Throughout his narrative the damage caused by the war, and the subsequent collapse of piles of concrete, are juxtaposed against the work at the construction site and how new lives were being built in Lebanon as lives were being destroyed across the border.
The emotive footage will strike a cord with viewers, in particular scenes of children crying out from beneath the rubble as rescue workers use their bare hands to claw through the damage to find them.
The Syrian tragedy, loss of life and subsequent isolation suffered by refugees are apparent throughout the film, while the footage used is hard hitting and informative.
The film however is slow, long and drags out. Perhaps 20 minutes are sufficient to highlight the points raised!
But in the end, the message is clear: “Since the end of the war Beirut keeps building”, let’s hope Syria gets the opportunity to do the same. And soon!
“Taste of Cement” is showing at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London until 2 January 2018