War

RIDM 2017: Review of documentary film Taste of Cement

In the documentary film Taste of Cement, Syrian construction workers build a highrise in Beirut, Lebanon.

Taste of Cement is a melancholy, sympathetic, and arty documentary about Syrian construction workers in Beirut, Lebanon.

They are building a high-rise apartment building near the Mediterranean shore. When their working day is over, they retreat to bare-bones lodgings in the building’s basement. No commute time! But it’s a dark place, divided into haphazard units, with little privacy, and no security for valuables that I could see. Water dripping from above leaves puddles here and there. The living quarters are quite far from the entrance, which must contribute to a sense of claustrophobia. What’s the air like down there?

Some men have makeshift beds, while others sleep on thin mattresses or pieces of cardboard placed on the floor (ouch).

When they aren’t on the job, Syrian construction workers in Beirut, Lebanon, stay in this dark basement full of puddles.

They wash their clothes in buckets and hang them on the wall. There was at least one TV down there. Many men use their phones to look at photos or news reports on the devastation back home.

Meagre evening meals include oily sardines plonked onto pita directly from the tin, and something that looked like ratatouille, eaten out of a pot. In the morning, a man used a Barbie Pink mirror while shaving. A dollar store find? A gift from a daughter?

This living arrangement is not voluntary – a sign says that there is a 7 p.m. curfew for Syrians and that violators will be prosecuted. Essentially, they are a captive workforce, even if they do get paid. I was hoping they weren’t paying anything to live in that basement.

Syrian workers in Beirut, Lebanon, must obey a curfew.

Nothing could make that basement look welcoming or arty, but the outdoor scenes are another matter. The framing is masterful and many images could be mistaken for still photos if not for waves, or changing images on far-away video billboards. Colours are beautiful – the blue sky, the blue water, orange safety vests, red poles, yellow bulldozers.

The views from the building are stunning, but the men are probably too busy with work, and trying to stay alive, to notice. Many work without hard hats, or gloves, or harnesses; they are welding and running big saws without safety glasses. Just watching is scary.

 

The film has a narrator – I was not sure if he was supposed to be a specific person, or more of an Everyman. He tells of his father who also did construction work abroad, and whose hands always smelled of cement. He and his father are part of a cycle of destruction and construction. Buildings and cities are destroyed by war and then repaired. Certainly Lebanon has seen its share of destruction. I wonder, the workers must wonder. . .when or if Syria will be repaired? After all, the destruction is still taking place.

Many business owners are eager to do it, not for any humanitarian reasons, but to earn a profit. Even back in 2016 Robert Fisk wrote about that in The Independent. In August of 2017, the Associated Press said that ”markets across the Middle East are anticipating a mammoth reconstruction boom that could stimulate billions of dollars in economic activity.”

Taste of Cement
Country : Germany, Lebanon, Syria, United Arab Emirates
Year : 2017
V.O : Arabic
Subtitles : English
Duration : 85 Min
Cinematography : Talal Khoury
Editing : Alex Bakri, Frank Brummundt
Production : Ansgar Frerich, Eva Kemme, Tobias N. Siebert, Mohammad Ali Atassi
Writer : Ziad Kalthoum, Talal Khoury, Ansgar Frerich
Music : Sebastian Tesch
Sound Design : Ansgar Frerich, Sebastian Tesch

Presented in Collaboration with CSN, Goethe-Institut Montréal, Institute of International Education, Cinema Politica, La Maison de la Syrie, Kazamaza Restaurant and Bell Media

 

Taste of Cement will be shown Friday, Nov. 17, at 7:00 p.m. at Concordia University,
1455 de Maisonneuve W., Room H-110, Montreal, as part of the RIDM film festival, which runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.

Advertisements

RIDM 2017: Review of Zaatari Djinn

 

Syrian refugee Fatma plays with her pet rooster in the documentary film Zaatari Djinn. The film is being shown at the documentary film festival RIDM in Montreal.

The documentary film Zaatari Djinn shows us what life is like for two girls and two boys in Jordan’s sprawling Zaatari camp, which is home for 80,000 to 100,000 Syrian refugees.

In the camp, Fatma, Maryam, Ferras and Hammoudi are at the mercy of their parents, circumstances, and the weather. The place is sometimes sunny, sometimes cloudy, often windy and dusty. The future is uncertain. But despite the many hardships, Zaatari Djinn is frequently lyrical and captivating. So far, it is one of my two favourite films on the RIDM schedule.

More than once, we hear a mother telling her children a story, beginning with the familiar: “Once upon a time…”

One tale involves a wicked stepmother – it sounds much like Hansel and Gretel, except that the evil woman plans to abandon the children in the searing desert, not in the deep, dark forest. One boy who has a real-life stepmother declares that she is evil. (After reading the press notes, I realized something I had not grasped while watching the film. The father married again after his wife died, then took yet another wife after moving to the camp. The two women don’t get along.)

Thanks to a drama class, Maryam has discovered the joys of acting, but her father does not approve, he says it is against their culture. Interestingly, the play she was rehearsing is Shakespeare’s King Lear, which has its share of father-daughter discord. The film show her happily playing soccer with other girsl, but the press notes say her father made her stop that, too.

Like girls in many countries, 13-year old Fatma argues with her mother about how old a girl must be before she can wear makeup and how much is too much. Like Maryam, Fatma clashes with her father. Unlike any girls I know, Fatma has a rooster for a pet and confidant. (When the rooster can’t be found, someone says many animals have been poisoned and maybe he was, too. Another indication the place is not warm and fuzzy. Who poisons animals?)

Ferras walks the streets of the camp, selling the sweets that his father makes. It’s the stuff often called Turkish Delight in the West; they call it raha in Syria. Making it requires lots of stirring with a big wooden stick. Ferras also buys the supplies, mostly sugar and cornstarch, which aren’t always available in sufficient quantities. Ferras doesn’t seem to have much choice about doing this work. While reading about the camp, I found an article online about Ferras and his father. The family had a candy factory in Dara’a, Syria, before the war. Most of the people in the camp are from Dara’a, though Fatma is from Damascus.

Syrian refugee Hammoudi chooses a bicycle in the documentary film Zaatari Djinn. The film is being shown at the documentary film festival RIDM in Montreal.

Hammoudi is happy when his mother offers to buy him a bicycle, and lets him choose it. He clearly knows so much about them I was surprised that the bicycle seller didn’t offer him a job. When Hammoudi accompanies his mother to the camp hospital, we see a place with modern equipment and doctors who are gentle and friendly with the children. There are many aid-group logos on the walls, and US and EU flag decals.

Hammoudi learns that he has a little brother on the way; the doctors ask him if he goes to school and if he is doing well there. (The answer to both questions is yes. Though school is mentioned several times we don’t see the inside any classrooms. Maybe the filmmakers could not get permission, maybe they did not have time for that.)

After his little brother is born, Hammoudi’s vows to protect him are so fierce they’re almost frightening. A paraphrase from memory: “I’ll kill anyone who so much as harms one hair on your head.”

Similarly, I felt distressed and uneasy watching some boys playing what might have been their version of “war“- they pointed toy guns at a playmate, and grabbed him shouting “Lock him up!” I don’t know, seeing children displaced by war playing with (toy) guns, doesn’t seem to bode well for the future.

Zaatari DjinnDirector: Catherine van Campen
Cinematographer: Jean Counet & Jefrim Rothuizen
Sound: Mark Wessner
Editor: Albert Markus
Sounddesign: Marc Lizier
Music: Alex Simu
Producers: Iris Lammertsma & Boudewijn Koole | Witfilm
Distributor: Cinema Delicatessen i.c.w. Herrie Film & TV
Contact: Nazima Mintjes (Production)
Witfilm nazima@witfilm.nl

With: Hammoudi Al-Mansour
Maryam Al-Hariri
Ferras Adnan
Fatma Al-Badawy

Duration: 90 minutes, in Arabic with English subtitles.

Zaatari Djinn will be shown on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017 at 5 p.m. in Salle 10 of Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin, 350 rue Émery.

RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.

Movie Review Gulistan: Land of Roses

 

Rojen Beritan in the documentary Gulistan Land of Roses. Much of the film was shot in the mountains of Iraq.

Rojen Beritan in the documentary Gulistan Land of Roses. Much of the film was shot in the mountains of Iraq.

 

In the documentary Gulistan Land of Roses, Montreal filmmaker Zaynê Akyol puts puts names and faces on a struggle taking place far away from us – the fight against Islamic State, also known as IS, ISIS or Daesh. Specifically, she introduces us to some of the Kurdish women who are taking part in that fight.

We see them, among the trees of their mountain training camp, doing calesthenics, cleaning their weapons, attending open air political-education classes, sharing meals together in the grass. They look very serious, yet also elegant in their drapey shalwar. Some express their camaraderie in hair-braiding sessions.

They discuss the different attributes of U.S., Russian, and Iraqi bombs. They tell us about their weapons – where they’re from and the names they have given them. It doesn’t seem strange that such an important item be given a name.

We learn that equality for women is one of the tenets espoused in the writings and communiqués of their leader, Apo. Certainly, while they might miss their parents and siblings, none of these women are dreaming of wedded bliss or motherhood. In fact, one says that she has never met a happy housewife. “Every married woman leads a life of slavery.” “From what I’ve seen, married women are never happy.”

Rojen Beritan, centre, is one of many Kurdish women who are fighting against the Islamic State.

Rojen Beritan, centre, is one of many Kurdish women who are fighting against the Islamic State.

The foul-mouthed, sadistic drill sergeant is a staple of U.S. soldiers-in-training films, but the female drill sergeant in this film, who trains men, too, is a different kind of soldier. She doesn’t call anyone a maggot or make then do extra pushups. She does tell those who are impatient to start fighting right away that it would be unwise, and wasteful, to go into battle before one is fully prepared.

While the training area looks relatively bucolic, it is still a dangerous place. When that terrain was held by Saddam Hussein’s men they filled it with land mines, and many still remain. Furthermore, we learn that “if Iran attacks, this is their first target.” Same thing with Turkey. And then there’s Daesh, too. “We can be attacked from all sides.” On the other hand, even though we don’t see them, we’re told that every mountain and valley is guarded by “comrades” with heavy weapons.

Later, we also see the women on patrol and observation duty in a desert area near the town of Makhmur, 95 km southeast of Mosul. While plumes of smoke rise from the town, they watch the comings and goings of Daesh, through binoculars. Is Daesh watching them, too? Probably. Despite the relative quiet, there is a sense of constant danger. Akyol and her cameraperson are told they really ought to leave, but the film continues.

The philosophical Sozdar Cudi shares her thoughts in Gulistan Land of Roses.

The philosophical Sozdar Cudi shares her thoughts in Gulistan Land of Roses.

A soldier named Sozdar Cudi gets much of the screen time Gulistan: Land of Roses, she is very thoughtful, philosophical even. If not for this war, what kind of life might she be leading? Would she be a politician, working for women’s rights? Maybe a poet?

The footage was shot in August 2014, but it remains 100% relevant because ISIS has not gone away.

After watching Gulistan: Land of Roses, I wanted to know more about these women and their fight.

My first question was: Are they still alive? I fear that some are not, but the PR people for the film could not say.

I wanted to know more about the Kurds, Kurdish woman, the Peshmerga, the towns of Makhmur and Sinjar. It seems that even as long ago as the early 1990s, 30 per-cent of the 17,000 armed Kurdish militants were women. Not surprisingly, Makhmur and Sinjar, like many others, have changed hands several times since 2014. You can read about the Kurdish women fighting ISIS in these articles from VICE, Reuters and the Independent.

And what of their often-quoted leader, Apo? He is Abdullah Öcalan, a Kurd from Turkey, and the co-founder of the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎, known as the Kurdistan Workers Party in English). He has been in prison since 1999. Many countries and organizations classify the PKK as a terrorist group, though the UN does not. Wikipedia has an entry on Öcalan. He has said “A country can’t be free unless the women are free.” Some of his writings about women in society can be read at the International Initiative website.

On a less serious note, I also bought some nettle tea. In the film, we see the women rinsing their hair with water containing nettle leaves. The Internet says that people of many cultures believe that it it is good for promoting hair growth, whether you drink it or apply it. Who knows? It can’t hurt, right?

Gulistan: Land of Roses was enjoyed by audiences at the HotDocs Festival in Toronto 2016, and at festivals in the U.S, France, Argentina and Switzerland. It won the Best Feature Film Award (International Competition) at the Milan Film Festival, the 2016 Doc Alliance Selection Award, which was presented at 2016 Locarno Film Festival, the Meilleur Espoir Québec / Canada Award 2016 at Montreal’s documentary film festival, RIDM.

Gulistan: Land of Roses (with English subtitles) is playing at Cinema du Parc until Feb 9.
Under the title Gulîstan, terre de roses it is playing at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, with French subtitles, until Feb. 16, 2017. The dialogue in the film is in Kurmanji and Turkish.

The film is a co-production of Mitosfilm, Peripheria Productions, and Canada’s National Film Board (NFB/ONF). If you can’t see it in a cinema, perhaps it will show up on TV or on the NFB web site some day. But I suggest you try to see it before then!

RIDM 2015 Review: They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile

Members of the band Songhoy Blues are among the musicians who appear in the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile.

Members of the band Songhoy Blues are among the musicians who appear in the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile.

They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile is a documentary about the difficulties faced by residents of northern Mali, especially the musicians, after a Tuareg rebellion in 2012 was hijacked by Islamist forces. Mosques, tombs, libraries, and ancient manuscripts were destroyed. The imposition of sharia law meant veils for women, amputated limbs for convicted thieves and a ban on all music – even ringtones on cellphones. Musicians fled cities like Gao and Timbuktu in fear for their lives. Among those who appear in the film, some went to Bamako, in Mali’s south, while others went to refugee camps in Burkina Faso.

Malian musician Fadimata Walett Oumar, who is nicknamed Disco, right, and her husband Hassan (Jimmy) Mehdi, in a scene from the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile. The film is being shown at RIDM, Montreal's documentary film festival.

Malian musician Fadimata Walett Oumar, who is nicknamed Disco, right, and her husband Hassan (Jimmy) Mehdi, in a scene from the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile. The film is being shown at RIDM, Montreal’s documentary film festival.

The people we meet include established stars Khaira Arby and Fadimata Walett Oumar (nicknamed Disco, because she was a big Madonna fan in her younger days). Disco is a longstanding member of the group Tartit, though it is not named until near the end of the film. She is also married to a high-ranking Malian soldier who changes allegiance more than once, which makes their lives somewhat complicated. The film also serves as a promotional vehicle for a younger band called Songhoy Blues, and includes footage from their U.K. tour. (Earlier this year, they toured North America, making stops at SXSW and in Toronto, too.) You can find music by Khaira Arby, Tartit and Songhoy Blues on iTunes; click on their names to go there. The film’s soundtrack will be released, but sadly, it isn’t ready yet. If you like what you heard in the film, check out Tinariwen, as well.

Khaira Arby is among the Malian musicians who appear in the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile.

Khaira Arby is among the Malian musicians who appear in the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile.

Most of us will never see the wonders of Timbuktu in person, so I appreciated glimpses of them in the film. I suspect that some scenes were shot before the widespread destruction and that many of those intriguing structures no longer exist.

At 100 minutes, the film seems stretched out. I expected lots of music, since it is about musicians, after all, but got tantalizing snippets instead. There is lots of talking, and some of it is repetitive. Perhaps I am just a victim of my own expectations – the film has many positive reviews on the Internet. Sample quote from a review in the Austin Chronicle:
“Social journalism of the highest order, They Will Have to Kill Us First is by turns horrific and front-loaded with sonic heroism. It’s also one of the most vibrantly shot and masterfully edited documentaries of this or any other SXSW year.”

Full disclosure, I did watch They Will Have To Kill Us First at home via an online screener, which must have reduced its power considerably.

(Justified) spoiler: The film ends with a joyous outdoor concert in Timbuktu, with lots of happy women and children among the audience.
They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile (Click on the film’s name to read more about it on the RIDM web site.)

Friday, Nov. 13, 2:30 p.m.
Cinéma Du Parc 1 (Buy tickets here)

Saturday, Nov. 14, 215 p.m.
Cinéma Du Parc 2 (Buy tickets here)

They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile
Country : Mali, United Kingdom
Year : 2015
Language : English, Bambara, French, Songhay
Subtitles : English
Runtime : 100 min
Production : Kat Amara Korba, Sarah Mosses, Johanna Schwartz, John Schwartz
Cinematography : Karelle Walker
Editing : Andrea Carnevali, Guy Creasey
Sound : Phitz Hearne
RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs from Nov. 12-22, 2015. Visit the web site ridm.qc.ca for more information about the festival.