Dossier | Reel-Unreel, by Francis Alÿs | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Reel-Unreel, by Francis Alÿs

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

Reel-Unreel, by Francis Alÿs
By Séverine Cauchy

In Francis Alÿs’s Reel-Unreel, (1) 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)

The implicit story — and strong statement — in Alÿs’s work is located in Afghanistan’s political, economic, cultural, and religious history. Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, the country has suffered wars, exodus, and massive destruction. After the Soviet intervention from 1979 to 1989 and the civil war from 1992 to 1996, the Taliban from the Pashtun regions, who had controlled a third of the country for nearly two years, took Kabul. In 2001, the commander of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, targeted the country’s heritage, among other things. He called for all images to be destroyed in order to prevent the return of “idolatry.” As part of this ideological radicalization, moving images were declared heretical and destined for eradication, including the film archives in Kabul. The entirety of the archives preserved at Afghan Films was thus at risk. The Afghan archival team, now reduced to a few staff — whom Western press dubbed the anonymous heroes of Afghan cinema (3) — devised a stratagem for replacing the originals with copies. (4) The original negatives were moved from their usual storage area to a hidden room, which the perpetrators of the scheme then walled up. The films that were seized by the Taliban and that burned for fifteen days outside Kabul were only copies. After the end credits retelling the story of Afghan Films, the last images of Alÿs’s video are given over to children having fun handling the film strips and examining the now inanimate cinematic images.

The two words that Alÿs chose for the video title create rich semantic associations, generating a subtle linguistic play. “Reel” — in its substantive form, a spool on which film is wound, and in the verbal sense, the act of winding — and “unreel” — the act of unwinding — are homophonic with “real” and “unreal” (imaginary, illusory, intangible). The mechanics of winding and unwinding a film reel, an action that lies at the origin of film projection, and the effects of this action on the imagination evoke the question of the power of the device, accompanied by a subterfuge by which it overtakes reality, as suggested by the caption that appears on the final shot of Reel-Unreel: “Cinema: everything else is imaginary.” (5) As witness to this shift, cinema appears as the last bastion against the economic, political, and religious context of Afghanistan.

The many layers embedded in the title of Reel-Unreel lead viewers into the polysemic avenues the artist engages with. Between the real and illusion, that which burns and that which endures, that which is free and that which is imprisoned, that which is still alive and that which is dead — these shifts, while not adopting a rigid point of view, take a stance along many paths that are played out simultaneously: “As in a film played in reverse, the walls of Kabul slowly dissolve and erode into the sandstorms that sometimes overtake the western part of the city. Each day sees the city grow colourless, with its people waiting for the injections of reconstruction aid and the unfolding of global events that contain the blueprints of their uncertain future.” (6)

Whether it is a matter of the future of a city and a country at war, the future of analogue film, or of resistance to deprivations of freedom of expression and memories of the past, Alÿs’s reels turn, unwind, rewind, and connect, striving to maintain a power — that of imagination — in equilibrium. At a time when NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (7) has just withdrawn from Afghanistan after thirteen years of war, leaving behind it the Resolute Support mission (8) and reconstruction projects at the Bamiyan site, (9) Reel-Unreel persists in taking a stance and steadfastly resisting, in the Deleuzian sense: “A work of art is not an instrument of communication. A work of art has nothing to do with communication. A work of art does not contain the least bit of information. In contrast, there is a fundamental affinity between a work of art and an act of resistance. Here, for sure. It has something to do with information and communication as an act of resistance.” (10)

In Reel-Unreel, it is a matter of just such an act of resistance. At the heart of cinema and of Afghanistan, wheeling and staggering, the reels pursue their unbridled course. In this cavalcade, tumbling down Kabul’s rocky bluffs, far from Manichean biases and programmed responses, Alÿs’s irresolute and wandering loops take a stance. They weave about, clang, bounce, and slink away from the games men play.

[Translated from the French by Ron Ross.]

(1) Francis Alÿs, Reel-Unreel, Kabul, 2011, 19:29, accessed March 28, 2015, 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.
(2) Ibid., at 16:29.
(3) Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, “Des pellicules à la barbe des talibans,”Libération, October 28, 2003, accessed May 29, 2015,
(4) Thunder004, “Heroes of Saving Afghan Film Archives,” online video, February 12, 2008, 3:55, accessed March 28, 2015, v=t0jmcfq_Vqg.
(5) Alÿs, Reel-Unreel, at 19:17.
(6) Ajmal Maiwandi, “Re-Doing Kabul” n.d., accessed February 3, 2015,
(7) The International Security Assistance Force is the military component of the coalition that has operated under the auspices of NATO in Afghanistan since 2001.
(8) “L’OTAN met fin à ses 13 années de guerre en Afghanistan,” Le Monde, December 28, 2014, accessed March 5, 2015,
(9) Thomas Cluzel, “Soutien résolu à l’Afghanistan?,” France Culture, January 1, 2015, accessed March 5, 2015,
(10) Gilles Deleuze, “What is the Creative Act?,” in Gilles Deleuze, Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975–1995, ed. David Lapoujade, trans. Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina (New York: Semiotext(e), 2007), 327. Transcription of a filmed lecture given at La Fémis on March 17, 1987. 327

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