Francis Alÿs (in collaboration with Julien Devaux & Ajmal Maiwandi) REEL-UNREEL, video stills, 2011.
Photo : courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London

Reel-Unreel, by Francis Alÿs

Séverine Cauchy
In Francis Alÿs’s Reel-Unreel,1 1 - Francis Alÿs, Reel-Unreel, Kabul, 2011, 19:29, accessed March 28, 2015, www.francisalys.com/public/reel-unreel.html. Video jointly produced with director Julien Devaux and Afghan architect Ajmal Maiwandi for Documenta (13), which took place from June 9 to September 16, 2012, in Kassel, Germany. the hoops that Afghan children wheel and steer with a stick have been switched for metal film reels, which they propel by repeated thrusts with the flat of their hand.

Two children are running, one behind the other. The first pushes a red metal reel loaded with film, his running and the constant hand propulsion causing the film to unwind from its circular spool. The second child, running behind, winds the trailing film back onto a blue metal reel. A first action (the unwinding from the red film reel) has a direct connection with the second (the rewinding of the film onto the blue reel) in a dual movement of inverse and simultaneous rotation, as the two children run and scramble across the craggy landscape, up and down staircases and through the alleyways, markets, and crowded streets that make up life in Kabul. Events pick up toward the end of this exuberant cavalcade, its breathlessness becoming increasingly audible. The film breaks, burnt on a small fire encountered along the way, and the red reel goes off the road, hurtling madly from rebound to rebound down the steep slope of a hill, where it finally disappears. No longer rewinding, nor rolling across the ground, the blue reel, carried by the momentum of the race, spins empty a few moments in front of the boy’s eyes as he holds it up. A smile spreads across his face as he looks over Kabul. Here Alÿs interrupts the scene and the narrative with some text that scrolls over an imageless black background: “On the 5th of September 2001, the Taliban confiscated thousands of reels of film from the Afghan Film Archive and burned them on the outskirts of Kabul. People say the fire lasted 15 days. But the Taliban didn’t know they were mostly given film print copies, which can be replaced, and not the original negatives, which cannot.”2 2 - Ibid., at 16:29.

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This article also appears in the issue 85 – Taking a Stance - Taking a Stance

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