From Syrian construction workers in Beirut to life under post-Socialism: the 2017 Open City Documentary Festival in London
The lights inside the theatre dimmed and the screen lit up, covered almost entirely by the face of Syrian filmmaker Ziad Kalthoum. Wherever that video was recorded, there were birds chirping. So when he apologized for not being there, with us, in the dark theatre, the uncomfortable silence that followed was almost unbearable. Kalthoum, and his cinematographer Talal Khoury, were both denied entry into the UK to attend the premiere of Taste of Cement (2017) – at London’s Open City Documentary Festival (5-10 September 2017) – their film about the unspeakable trauma of war, as it sifts through the rugged fingers of Syrian construction workers, now trapped in a foreign country, Lebanon.
What does life sound and taste like there? Life tastes like dust and sounds like thunder inside a concrete panopticon – the latest skyscraper in Beirut – where these invisible Syrian workers have sought refuge. The echo of each incision forced into the new concrete of the building site mirrors that same concrete crumbling over the border in Syria. Taste of Concrete observes the lives of these Syrians, working to rebuild those neighbourhoods of Beirut ravaged by the Lebanese civil war, while helplessly watching their own homes become giant graveyards. There’s an absurd looking glass effect between the film’s audience and its subjects: one Syrian worker sits down on a bare concrete block – the closest thing to an armchair – his face dimly lit by footage of rescue operations in Aleppo streaming from his smartphone.
Kalthoum’s masterful juxtaposition of conflict and construction is catalyzed by concrete – for every drilling, every new floor reaching for the skies, there is the sound of a bomb and a street levelled to the ground just kilometres away. But there is another layer to this film, which cannot be so easily visualized or voiced – an aftertaste that allows the dampness of the construction site to seep into the film theatre.
It is the notion that taste and sounds take on a life of their own. The idea of what we cannot see is again beautifully considered in Ann Carolin Renninger and René Frölke’s From a Year of Non-Events (2017), a film patched together with stretches of black leader, following four seasons in the life of 89-year-old Willi Detert, alone on a farm in northern Germany. Detert’s life snippets, appearing abruptly in grainy Super 8 and 16mm images, often turn dark or silent, when the film runs out and the black leader is allowed to engulf the screen. In From a Year of Non-Events, we are guided in turn by the banal sounds of daily life alone, or when soundless images are allowed to roam free.
Once you accept the inevitability of these voids in the record, small actions protracted selectively throughout the film become stirring. Every time Detert screams for his cat to come in (‘Muschi!’), each moment we hear the screeching sound of his DIY stroller against the muddy road up to the farm – these limited movements begin to forcefully guide the film. In response, Renninger and Frölke’s focus expands, in intricately beautiful patterns, to all the life that one fragile being might coexist with: the lens, like a magnifying glass, might settle on cherries, rotting on the tree, or the footprints of farm animals on a cold winter’s day.
This unpredictability and poignancy of memory and record is also explored expertly in the 2005 film Gagarin’s Pioneers by Vitaly Mansky, who traces an unwilling diaspora of his former primary school classmates, created by the awkward dissolution of the Soviet Union. Mansky strips his subjects down to their most intimate – one classmate, now living in the US, is so comfortable in his presence that her bare feet delicately rub against each other as she ponders the question of what ‘homeland’ means to her.
Gagarin’s Pioneers is a genealogy of the Soviet Union: a collection of personal testimonies telling a story of lost innocence and a failed dream. Each time Mansky introduces a former classmate – through a kind of biographical video dossier – an old black-and-white photo appears to show us the child that once was. We are invited into an array of fragile adult lives, of people who once were the future of the Soviet Union, who once swore loyalty to their beloved motherland.
In this sense, the scattered testimonies of Gagarin’s Pioneers form a much larger personal history of what it is like to have lived socialism in your youth, and to live post-socialism in adulthood. There’s a taste of regret – the most painful memory of all – lingering through this film: a permanent marker on post-socialist life, no matter how much time has passed or how far away you travel from the promise of homeland. For those that stayed in Ukraine, the marker is one of shattered promises. The promise of democracy superimposed by the reality of having no hot water; the promise of capitalism superimposed by the reality of selling underwear on the street, next to a shiny new mall.
But with François Jacob’s A Moon of Nickel and Ice (2017), we step into uncharted territory: the final frontier of the Soviet utopian dream, and the realization of full industrialization – a city without trees. On the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, we are (un)welcomed into the Arctic, where the Siberian mining city of Norilsk seems to singlehandedly perpetuate Stalin’s legacy. Once built by Gulag prisoners, now Norilsk’s inhabitants are primarily their descendants.
What Jacob’s film does brilliantly, through overlaying interviews with these descendants over footage of Norilsk’s seemingly empty streets, is to unlock a closed city – a place which, to be filmed, required special clearance and documentation by the Russian secret services. The images of the destructive force of industry on the urban environment, and in turn of the urban environment on its inhabitants, are perfectly dystopian, a blur of metal and wind. Often as the narration of the town’s history unfolds, the sound of the mine in the background deafens the stories.
But the more time you spend, Norilsk’s inhabitants come into focus. There is a moment in A Moon of Nickel and Ice when we are introduced to Katya, a sharp-eyed girl whose beauty is explored so cinematically, blurring the concrete stacks of flats behind. Katya’s dream is to leave Norilsk for the big city, Saint Petersburg. It hints at an unspoken compromise that is sensed through these explorations of the post-Soviet at the Open City Documentary Festival (Mansky is more internal and self-referential, while Jacob cannot hide the inherent fascination of a foreigner looking in at the bizarre), in how to approach the feeling of being superfluous. Both Gagarin’s Pioneers and A Moon of Nickel and Ice give voice to a lost generation of sorts – often paying more attention to their silences and pauses than actual words uttered.
Finally, in Purge This Land (2017), Lee Anne Schmitt’s painstakingly empty – in the sense of showing very little, but precipitating so much more – personal document(ary), which she made for her newborn son, the filmmaker embarks on a form of archaeology of the traces of slavery in the past and of systemic racism now in the US. Purge This Land is diagnostic, using carefully selected shots (filmed over many years) of seemingly bare landscapes, layered with archival footage, to offer an answer to the present.
Schmitt frames her film around the story of John Brown – a 19th century white abolitionist who led an anti-slavery revolt and was subsequently hung – by tracing his movements across land, lingering in places where he stopped for shelter. Brown’s story alternates with Schmitt’s own narration style, emerging like a cross between a lullaby and lecture, which considers the brutal irony and injustices that are still perpetuated. Purge This Land binds together Schmitt’s words and a jazz score (courtesy of Schmitt’s partner), offset by shots of an empty Americana. Into this complicit landscape, Schmitt places CCTV footage (with the last minutes cut short) of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old African-American boy shot dead by police officers in 2014, closing the loop in this powerful study of guilt, inhumanity and displacement.
Main image: Ziad Kalthoum, Taste of Cement, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Open City Documentary Festival, London