Compared to other European documentary festivals, Visions du Réel keeps a comparatively low profile. Located in a small town just outside of Geneva, the festival may not boast the central setting of its Paris-based almost-namesake Cinema du Réel or the vast marketing budget of Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX, but its program speaks for itself. A look at the Art of the Real lineup, for example, shows that the overlap between the prestigious Lincoln Center nonfiction showcase and the Swiss festival is considerable, and not just because they take place concurrently: Six of the titles that screened this year in New York premiered at this edition of Visions du Réel or the previous one, including the prize-winning Another Year and The Dazzling Light of Sunset. Bearing in mind that critical darling Homeland: Iraq Year Zero also started its festival career here back in 2015, it would appear that Visions du Réel is on a roll, with its strategy of charting a middle path between more conventional documentary fare and the category’s outer reaches paying obvious dividends.
It will be interesting to see whether this year’s prizewinning Taste of Cement can duplicate these recent successes. While the Lebanese-Syrian documentary has topicality in spades and a striking grasp of form, it still can’t control some of its more thudding, bombastic tendencies. Director Ziad Kalthoum’s second feature-length work is structured around the daily routine of the Syrian refugee workers employed at a Beirut construction site, which is presented in heavily stylized fashion. They emerge at dawn, ascend to the very top of the skyscraper in an open lift carriage, toil the day away in the sun above the city and sea, and reenter their underground shelter at dusk, passing the long night in the makeshift shelters set up in the vast concrete catacombs, with only television, cellphones, and unusually vivid dreams for company. With the bulk of the film formed by a couple of iterations of this routine, the other main connecting element is the voiceover by one of the workers, whose father helped rebuild Lebanon following its own civil war.
The stages of the routine, its settings, and the tasks carried out there offer ample opportunity for creating memorable images, which the excellent camerawork exploits at every turn: drone shots that capture the boundless expanse of the city below, the numerous framings of sea and sky through girders, windows, and half-built walls, the rays of sunlight that travel up through the building together with the lift, the cement mixer whose steady 360-degree rotation is taken up by a ravishing tracking shot through the streets of Beirut. Yet these moments of visual invention and the numerous others like them transmit so much atmosphere already that the plaintive accompanying music, penetrating sound design, and almost aggressively poetic voiceover frequently smothers them rather than helping them soar.
A similar heavy-handedness is felt on a thematic level. Though conveying everyday trauma and uncertainty via atmosphere and association or positing conflict and (re-)construction as two sides of the same coin represent smart, unusual ways of engaging with the refugee experience, these intelligent ideas are all too often marred by Kalthoum’s clumsy execution. The dominating impression of the workers’ underground abode is that provided by the well-worn device of a television set blaring oh-so-relevant news reports from the frontline, while a sequence that edits footage of a tank flattening a city into the construction site’s bangs and clashes also obliterates any subtlety derived from linking destruction and creation in the first place. With a slew of more generic documentaries exploring the aftermath of the Syrian War likely already on the way, Taste of Cement’s unconventional take on its subject matter is to be applauded, even if it ultimately proves that the obvious and the oblique make for uncomfortable bedfellows.
If there’s a criticism to be leveled at In Time to Come, it’s that Tan Pin Pin’s experimental doc is perhaps too oblique for its own good; its deliberate pace and lack of direct explanation or commentary will likely alienate some. Yet for those willing to pick out the key moments from the flow of hushed, well-framed, frequently mysterious images of today’s Singapore, a wealth of interesting ideas soon bubble to the surface about both the current state of the tiny nation and how slippery pinning down the present is in general. Two separate sets of images scattered across the film form the entry point here: those showing the production of a high-tech metal time capsule and those documenting a previous capsule being dug up and its objects archived.
While some of the sequences placed around these two threads reference them directly, such as the various shots of teenagers kayaking on the Singapore river that tally with the bottles of river water exhumed from the second capsule, the majority do not. But given that the shiny new capsule appears in both the first shot of the film and the last, all the images in between might equally represent its contents. If this is indeed the case, then those looking back at today’s Singapore will see a place where the modern has not yet quite thrown off the past: uniformed school children can just as easily wander down sleek, state-of-the art travellators as attend old-fashioned school assemblies; construction workers still take an afternoon snooze on blankets under the trees even as the cityscape they’ve built couldn’t be more contemporary; the half-full corporate events aimed at future investment carry the unmistakable tinge of the 1980s.
Yet many images also seem to have been infected by the future perspective inherent to all time capsules, as if we’re already seeing the aftereffects of some profound event yet to happen. The command to evacuate that echoes across a high-tech mall nearly devoid of people, the pristine, empty highway tunnel with a prominent SOS sign addressing entirely absent traffic, the billowing smoke that envelops a housing block whose inhabitants are nowhere to be seen—each of these eerily beautiful scenes could equally be documenting the remains of a Singapore no longer there. The same atmosphere pervades some of the shots still linked to the present, helped by the filmmaker’s habit of taking out the sound at key moments, turning, for example, a trashy foam party into an expression of a nostalgia yet to form. Much like Nikolaus Geyrhalters’s Homo Sapiens and Theo Anthony’s Rat Film, In Time to Come understands that often the most startling standpoint for examining present uncertainties is an imagined future.