The killings and acts of treachery come one after another in Wael Shawky's ongoing film cycle The Cabaret Crusades, and the locations are familiar from recent headlines: Aleppo, Damascus, Baghdad. But the mayhem in the Egyptian filmmaker's work happened almost a thousand years ago, during the Crusades, which Shawky is recounting from an Arab point of view, with puppets.
The first two films, on view at the Art Gallery of York University in Toronto, are feats of epic storytelling on a miniature scale. Shawky's twitching marionettes enact real events in ways that blur history with social mythology, and that expose fault lines that still affect relations among Arabs and with the West.
In Shawky's four-part narrative, the Crusades encompass more than the invasions over two centuries by a variety of European armies. They also include related upheavals and infighting among Arab, Turkish and Armenian rulers, who sometimes sought alliances with the infidels, or relied on their presence to distract local enemies.
The films proceed through short, compressed vignettes, mostly of decisive moments in a larger narrative you either already know or can dimly guess. The powerful kill their fathers, sons, and anyone else who stands in the way of holding one city or gaining another. Puppet bodies lie in heaps after a slaughter, or are dragged through the straw in their blood-streaked clothes. The lighting is dramatic and the sets are often hand-drawn, emulating the flat perspective of Arab art from the period.
"We're making a documentary from what's written, whether it's true or not," says Shawky, who installed his film at York while on his honeymoon. His starting point was Amin Maalouf's book, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, but his ultimate sources are ancient accounts, many of which were written well after the events by authors who had a stake in the quarrel.
No one knows exactly what Pope Urban II said in the 1095 sermon that propelled his flock south to deliver Jerusalem from the "unclean nations" of Islam. Shawky's puppet Pope delivers a stirring composite of various accounts of the speech, as the camera slowly dollies in on his gleaming altar, white vestments and intent wooden face. It's as artificial a spectacle as can be, yet it feels like a pivotal historical moment happening in real time.
Shawky, who grew up in the Middle East and has shown work at the Venice Biennale, got into cinematic puppetry after making several films with children, whose work he prized for its unconscious, non-actorly quality. For a previous series, he recruited children to enact the 1981 murder of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and to build a short runway in the desert. The runway, and the innocent labour that created it, was Shawky's metaphor for the oil-industry infrastructure built for the British by coastal Bedouin labourers "who did not know they were building their own future."
The 120 marionettes used in the 32-minute first film, The Horror Show File, are part of a vintage Italian collection Shawky was able to borrow in Turin, on condition that he pay for restoration work the private owners could not afford. He made new costumes, and enjoyed the irony of his cast's origin and present occupation. "European marionettes were telling the story of the Crusades from an Arab point of view," he says.
He had a new set of terracotta marionettes made for The Path to Cairo, a 60-minute sequel shot last year in a town near Marseilles known for its clay nativity figures. These effigies include fantastical princes whose faces resemble the skulls of cats, and camel-faced advisers with necks like links of sausage. The terracotta puppets often sing in a scripted form of the tear-soaked fjeri music developed centuries ago by Arab pearl fishers.
The Horror Show File focuses on the immediate causes and action-packed four years of the first Crusade, ending with the 1099 capture of Jerusalem. The Path to Cairo covers the following 50 years, and shuffles the European invaders into the background for a look at the turmoil that wracked the Muslim leadership. "It's not so much about the relationship of the Crusaders with the Arabs anymore," Shawky says. "It's more about the Arab leaders and the relations between them."
That inevitably resonates with the lethal tensions now visible throughout the Arab world, where civil wars split populations along sectarian lines. Shawky says it wasn't his intention to respond to current events as much as to illuminate a backstory that extends to well before the Crusades. The title of the third film, The Secrets of Karbala, alludes to the battle in 680 that decisively established the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
"I'm trying to connect this event that happened more than 600 years before the Crusades with the period of the Crusades after 1146," he says. The third film will be shot in Germany, completing a trifecta of works made in three of the principal European Crusader nations.
None of the films has yet been seen in Egypt, or anywhere else in the Arab world. Shawky, who lives in Alexandria, says this is not the time. "Since the [Egyptian] revolution, it has become depressing to show in the Middle East," he says. "When you know that a thousand people have been killed in the street, you feel that if you have a role, it has to be in politics, not art."