Ziad Kalthoum: Trajectory of a Syrian Filmmaker

15 September, 2022
Syr­i­an film­mak­er Ziad Kalthoum at Berlin’s Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al (pho­to cour­tesy Ziad Kalthoum).


Interviewed by Viola Shafik


Ziad Kalthoum is an award-win­ning new gen­er­a­tion film­mak­er from Syr­ia. He‘s made three cre­ative doc­u­men­taries, Oh My Heart (Aydal ayuha al-qalb, 2011), The Immor­tal Sergeant (al-raqib al-khalid, 2014) and Taste of Cement (ta‘m al-asmant, 2017). While the first film was banned in Syr­ia when it came out, por­tray­ing a Syr­i­an Kur­dish vil­lage, the sec­ond became a very per­son­al account of the filmmaker’s expe­ri­ence in the army doc­u­ment­ing at the same time the mak­ing-of The Lad­der to Dam­as­cus (sulum illa Dimashq, 2011) by film vet­er­an Mohamed Malas. Kalthoum‘s third film was con­ceived entire­ly in exile, a “mag­ic real­ist” doc­u­men­tary on Syr­i­an con­struc­tion work­ers in Beirut. Present­ly, Kalthoum is work­ing on a new doc­u­men­tary and has a fic­tion film project in devel­op­ment. He is based in Berlin but has gone from Homs to Beirut and Stal­in­grad, among oth­er for­mer cities of war.


Vio­la Shafik: In your upcom­ing fic­tion film project, Berlin fea­tures promi­nent­ly. One sen­tence struck me in the pro­pos­al say­ing that for the main char­ac­ter Karim, a Syr­i­an pho­tog­ra­ph­er, Berlin rep­re­sent­ed a ceme­tery. Why does he recon­nect to life only when he leaves Berlin?

Ziad Kathoum: First of all, I did not choose Berlin; rather, Berlin chose me. I came to Berlin because I was look­ing for a sound design­er for Taste of Cement. The first time in my life I trav­eled abroad I found myself in Stal­in­grad (Vol­gograd) in Rus­sia, which was Berlin’s adver­sary in WWII. Most of the city was destroyed. Until now the traces of war are obvi­ous and all of the city’s sculp­tures and mon­u­ments relate to war. When I returned to Syr­ia and the war began, I went to Beirut — Beirut of course was ruined as well, and this while I myself hail from Homs, a city that has been in turn total­ly destroyed.

Com­ing from a war made me read Berlin dif­fer­ent­ly. Many things raise ques­tions here. For a young vis­i­tor from Spain or Italy, Berlin means Hap­py­land, a place where he vis­its night clubs and enjoys music, drugs, what­ev­er. This Hap­py­land, or let’s say Alice in Won­der­land is pre­des­tined to trig­ger a Syrian’s trau­ma. Peo­ple come to Berlin to take drugs, to tour the clubs, have fun, lose them­selves, wake up again, and so on. What about some­one who comes from the war, to a city that has a lot to do with war? For instance, the mess­ing-plat­ed cement cubes you find on Berlin’s side­walks, Stolper­steine, to stum­ble upon [in the mem­o­ry of deport­ed Jew­ish Berlin res­i­dents], they remind me of grave­stones that car­ry a person’s name, date of birth and death. For a tourist, one of the first places to vis­it is the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al (that speaks of the mur­dered Jews of Europe). It’s the biggest mon­u­ment in the city and one of its main touris­tic sites. When I stood the first time between the huge cement blocks, they remind­ed me a lot of Syr­ia after the col­lapse. Nor­mal­ly, in Syr­ia you build a house and leave the con­crete pil­lars on the roof for your son to fill in the walls. Quite sym­bol­i­cal­ly, the son con­tin­ues, leaves in turn new pil­lars for his son and so on. When the hous­es got destroyed, these pil­lars came down and turned Syria’s land­scape into one of con­crete mountains.

The Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al remind­ed me also that this coun­try is still on of the biggest pro­duc­ers of weapons, export­ing them to the world. What does it mean to know that Ger­many had sold chem­i­cal weapons to the Assad regime that he used against Syr­i­ans? How come, six mil­lion peo­ple were gassed in the Holo­caust and this sys­tem is still pro­duc­ing chem­i­cal weapons? It shows also that we are liv­ing in a non-stop loop of war, mov­ing from one war to the next.

VS: What does a space for an exiled per­son sig­ni­fy, a real space or rather a mir­ror that reflects his inner world? The lat­ter seems to be the log­ic of your fic­tion film project.

ZK: In my fic­tion, Karim the pho­tog­ra­ph­er found him­self in a posi­tion that he did not chose: he becomes a pho­tog­ra­ph­er for the regime. His task is to pho­to­graph detainees. After he fin­ish­es his job they are going die, and he becomes an accom­plice in their mur­der. In Berlin, Karim is in pur­suit of his own ghost, this sol­dier he used to be in Syr­ia who stood behind the cam­era to pho­to­graph faces. He meets him at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al. Karim’s girl­friend or lover sens­es that he is about to col­lapse and takes him out to nature. This hap­pened to me in real­i­ty. I found myself in Poland with a very strange fam­i­ly, peo­ple who use leech­es for health rea­sons. When I tried them and saw the bad blood exit­ing my body, I imag­ined that the worm is eat­ing up the bloody footage from my head, all these images of war in my memory.

Now I am also start­ing a new doc­u­men­tary film project. The idea for it devel­oped around a year ago and by mere acci­dent both pro­tag­o­nists are pho­tog­ra­phers. I thought about it a while and found it a good idea to make two films deal­ing with the mean­ing of the image and what kind of pho­tog­ra­phers we become in the moment of col­lapse. How is it to car­ry a cam­era that can become the tool for killing, as in the case of Karim in the fic­tion; the cam­era as revolver. As soon as he press­es the but­ton it is as if he has announced the death ver­dict for the per­son he photographs.

Thus, I con­sid­er it is a pre­sen­ta­tion from two dif­fer­ent angles. The one who took pic­tures for the regime feels guilty, has a guilt com­plex. The sec­ond pho­tog­ra­ph­er, Muzaf­far, is an old friend, who wit­nessed the upris­ing from the begin­ning. He has no guilt com­plex. He was not in any posi­tion respon­si­ble for the destruc­tion or the killing etc. Yet he is in a state of loss, depri­va­tion of place and peo­ple who left in front of his lens­es, whose sit­u­a­tion he doc­u­ment­ed. In fact, Muzaf­far was one of the first pho­tog­ra­phers to doc­u­ment the rev­o­lu­tion. News­pa­pers from all over the world pub­lished his pho­tos. He escaped like many Syr­i­ans and found him­self in Rouen, the cap­i­tal of Nor­mandy, sur­round­ed by a won­der­ful land­scape. Mon­et and the Impres­sion­ist school came from there.

How­ev­er, we dis­cov­er that he lives in a place where the traces of WWII are still very much present, par­tic­u­lar­ly in this area, where the Amer­i­cans descend­ed to lib­er­ate France from the Nazis: the tanks at the sea­side, huge mass graves with thou­sands of deaths result­ing from  Amer­i­cans and Nazis fight­ing at close quar­ters. When Muzaf­far first arrived there, he iso­lat­ed him­self. Six years he spent behind the kitchen win­dow pho­tograph­ing the land­scape. He end­ed up with a huge pro­duc­tion. Then, at one point he takes out his hard discs and starts print­ing his images from the war in Syr­ia. This is the top­ic we are address­ing, how a per­son in exile engulfed by such a won­der­ful land­scape expe­ri­ences the sud­den reap­pear­ance of his trau­ma. 

VS: If we ask Ziad, with whom of these two pro­tag­o­nists does he have more in common?

ZK: I was in the posi­tion of Karim. I was a sol­dier but I was not forced to take pic­tures of peo­ple who then pro­ceed­ed to the guil­lo­tine. You saw me in The Immor­tal Sergeant. In the morn­ing I was a sol­dier doc­u­ment­ing the place that sparked the war, the evening I spent with Mohamed Malas run­ning these inter­views with peo­ple who came from the places on which the bombs had been dropped. In a way, I was here and there but not entire­ly. Doc­u­men­ta­tion at the moment of col­lapse, the moment of destruc­tion and war pos­es a big ques­tion, how are we doc­u­ment­ing and from which per­spec­tive? Am I pro­duc­ing pro­pa­gan­da for a cer­tain par­ty or am I record­ing from my per­spec­tive with­out affil­i­a­tion, reli­gious or nation­al­ist col­or­ing? What does it mean to be a wit­ness of the last por­tray­al of a face, like in Cesar’s case. If you remem­ber, they have no expres­sion. Cesar pho­tographed 50,000 bod­ies with no expres­sion. Karim is the oppo­site, he takes their last pic­ture with their faces full of fear.

After he left Syr­ia, Muzaf­far asked him­self many times, what am I shoot­ing here after all the destruc­tion that I record­ed, this dra­ma and tragedy? What to pho­to­graph now? I was read­ing even the images he took in Rouen as being dif­fer­ent from any­one else’s land­scape pho­tographs. His breath, his soul, his sub­con­scious are imprint­ing on his images. There is a con­ti­nu­ity if you see his images from Syr­ia and those from Rouen.

VS: I remem­ber that your depar­ture from Syr­ia was quite dra­mat­ic. Had you fin­ished your mil­i­tary ser­vice or did you desert?

ZK: Yes, I desert­ed. The main prob­lem was that I “belong” to the Alaw­ite sect, the sect that dom­i­nates the regime. Thus my crime was twofold, a dou­ble trea­son, as sol­dier and as an Alaw­ite. This put me into a dif­fi­cult posi­tion, with my male cousins. My rel­a­tives who do not share the same con­vic­tions accused me of betray­al, sim­i­lar to my neigh­bor­hood friends from child­hood. This dou­ble trea­son was dif­fi­cult to deal with. Being a sol­dier who went to work from 7 am to 2 pm admin­is­trat­ing the cin­e­ma build­ing gave me space to maneu­ver, but the moment they put my name on the list and asked me to car­ry weapons, I evad­ed right away.

VS: You escaped to Beirut, right?

Ziad Kalthoum was born in Homs in 1981 and grad­u­at­ed after stud­ies in film. He has worked as an assis­tant direc­tor on sev­er­al films, series and tele­vi­sion pro­grams, includ­ing Mohamed Malas’s Lad­der to Dam­as­cus (2013). In 2011, he direct­ed his first short doc­u­men­tary, Oh, My Heart, which was select­ed for the Carthage Film Fes­ti­val. Kalthoum’s first fea­ture-length doc­u­men­tary The Immor­tal Sergeant (2013), deals with the schiz­o­phrenic dai­ly life and encoun­ters he expe­ri­ences between his manda­to­ry mil­i­tary ser­vice in the Syr­i­an Army and his role as assis­tant direc­tor dur­ing the shoot­ing of Lad­der to Dam­as­cus. In Taste of Cement, Kalthoum takes us into the lives of Syr­i­an con­struc­tion work­ers rebuild­ing post-war Beirut.

ZK: I remained for eight months in Syr­ia. Dur­ing that time I edit­ed The Immor­tal Sergeant. I stayed in hid­ing in Dam­as­cus, then I was able to clan­des­tine­ly leave to Beirut in ear­ly 2013.

VS: I can see indeed a graph­ic line going from The Immor­tal Sergeant in Dam­as­cus to Taste of Cement in Beirut end­ing in Berlin.

ZK: I dis­cov­ered that lat­er, while I was mov­ing from one place to the oth­er, which made me also under­stand my own char­ac­ter­is­tics as film­mak­er. I am a per­son who makes films after he has lived in a place and has been affect­ed by it. After mak­ing my obser­va­tions, I devel­op a cer­tain image of that place in which I was forced to take refuge. And to be hon­est, every place I escaped to car­ried a strong mem­o­ry of war. Two and a half years in Beirut! What can we say about Beirut? Fif­teen years of civ­il war, vast destruc­tion that you can see until today and its after­ef­fects, be they phys­i­cal on the build­ings or on the faces of peo­ple, their behav­ior and how they deal with the sit­u­a­tion. Then Berlin. Stal­in­grad, Homs, Beirut, Berlin, what an acci­dent! Thus, by mere chance I was mov­ing from one war place to the next. I fled the war and, nat­u­ral­ly, could not pre­vent myself from see­ing that city crit­i­cal­ly that every­body was admir­ing for its Alice in Won­der­land character.

VS: As I know a dif­fer­ent Berlin from my ado­les­cence, I share your Alice in Won­der­land impres­sion and in how it spreads a big lie. What lies under­neath, what you are express­ing might be much more of the truth, in my view as well.

ZK: Peo­ple get drugged, not just phys­i­cal­ly but also men­tal­ly, pre­vent­ing them from putting any ques­tion marks. Even all the demon­stra­tions that take place in Berlin, they sure­ly have their jus­ti­fied rea­sons, but there is one very obvi­ous thing that no one speaks about. We think we live in a place where free speech is allowed but in Berlin we don’t dare to speak about Pales­tine for instance.

VS: Yes, I was told that protests for the Pales­tin­ian cause cur­rent­ly are not authorized.

ZK: Here we come back to the same idea: In Syr­ia it was like that and in Beirut you had an East and a West, the same men­tal­i­ty only dif­fer­ent in style and pow­er. This is why I also feel anger at that glob­al regime. It thinks it has the right to enter any coun­try, exchange a regime — as bad as this regime may be — and destroy the coun­try for the sake of democracy.

VS: Can we turn to Ziad, the Syr­i­an cinéaste before the war and after, or bet­ter, now in exile, as the war has not end­ed yet.

ZK I feel, I was the same before and after the rev­o­lu­tion, but the dra­ma inten­si­fied and me with it. The acts got big­ger, the acts of killing took now place in front of us. When the rev­o­lu­tion start­ed and I was still a sol­dier, if some­one was caught in the army car­ry­ing a mobile phone he was con­sid­ered a trai­tor and exe­cut­ed imme­di­ate­ly. I met this chal­lenge when I went to shoot. There is my 45 minute-long doc­u­men­tary (Oh, My Heart) from before the war, shot in 2009. It was already chal­leng­ing the regime as it tack­led Kur­dish society.

At that time, we were not per­mit­ted to bring a cam­era to the Kur­dish ter­ri­to­ries. We were not allowed to shoot Kurds, thus as a cinéaste I was clos­ing in with my cam­era on the red line. I was depict­ing a small Kur­dish vil­lage pop­u­lat­ed by women alone. In Syr­i­an Kur­dish soci­ety men are absent for three rea­sons; either the fight on the Kur­dish side against the Turks in the moun­tains, or they are want­ed and detained by the Syr­i­an regime, or they have escaped because of trib­al revenge. What attract­ed me was how the women expressed their pain and suf­fer­ing. When a woman tells her sto­ry, she stops sud­den­ly and con­tin­ues the sto­ry with an impro­vised song and lamentation.

Before the rev­o­lu­tion, I dreamt of mak­ing films on the sit­u­a­tion of peo­ple, also on their polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, only that at one point every­thing explod­ed. Even the film on which I assist­ed, The Lad­der to Dam­as­cus by Malas was a polit­i­cal film. (His lead actor, Ghas­san al-Jabai, a the­atre direc­tor just passed away.) He had been detained by the regime for twen­ty years. I imag­ine, even with­out the rev­o­lu­tion we would be still mak­ing films opposed to the regime. I liked Omar Ami­ralay and worked with Mohamed Malas and Ous­sama Mohamed; all of them have been dissidents.

Also, I was brought up in a dis­si­dent athe­ist fam­i­ly. My friends and neigh­bors with whom I grew up became all “shabi­ha” [lit.: ghosts denot­ing the regime’s para­mil­i­tary ter­ror squads] of the regime, instead. I can­not real­ly blame them for the way they were brought up, what they learned, the brain­wash­ing they under­went. If they had had the same oppor­tu­ni­ty as me, their sit­u­a­tion might have been dif­fer­ent. I can say Ziad remained the same, he did not leave the script or change, only that the scenery became worse, a crim­i­nal, cor­rupt regime whose detainees have been spend­ing decades in pris­ons, a coun­try that sup­press­es any­one who dis­agrees or says no to the regime and puts him in prison, a soci­ety where the regime tries to elim­i­nate indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, the pecu­liar­i­ty of each person.

At school we wore mil­i­tary uni­forms. All of us had to shave our hair the same way, as in North Korea. We got deprived of our pecu­liar­i­ties to resem­ble every­body else. This had a strong impact on me and I was very aware of it quite ear­ly through my fam­i­ly and my upbringing.

VS: If you were to choose, would you con­tin­ue to stay in Berlin?

ZK: I tried to learn the lan­guage but in fact I don’t want to stay. I want to com­plete the fic­tion and then leave. The min­i­mum is to go to a sun­ny place.


This inter­view was edit­ed and trans­lat­ed from Ara­bic by Vio­la Shafik and revised by Ziad Kalthoum.


asylumBeirutBerlinDamascusMohamed MalasshabihaSyriaSyrian filmmakerswar

Viola Shafik is a filmmaker, curator and film scholar. She is the author of Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity1998/2016 (AUC Press), Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class and Nation (AUC Press 2007), Resistance, Dissidence, Revolution: Documentary Film Aesthetics in the Middle East and North Africa (forthcoming from Routledge, 2023) and the editor of Documentary Filmmaking in the Middle East and North Africa (AUC Press 2022). She has taught at the American University in Cairo, Zurich University, Humboldt University and Ludwig Maximilians University, Munich where she held the position of a researcher 2016-2020. She served as the Head of Studies of the Documentary Campus MENA Program 2011-2013, curator and consultant for numerous international film festivals and film funds, such as La Biennale di Venezia, the Berlinale, Dubai Film Market, Rawi Screen Writers Lab, Torino Film Lab and the World Cinema Fund. She directed several documentaries, among others The Lemon Tree/Shajarat al-laymun (1993), Planting of Girls/Mawsim zaraa al-banat (1999), Jannat `Ali-Ali im Paradies/My Name is not Ali (2011) and Arij - Scent of Revolution (2014). Current works in progress are Home Movie on Location and Der Gott in Stücken. Viola Shafik is the guest editor of TMR's BERLIN issue.


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