Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo

11, 12/05 – 20:00
Arab > NL / FR

Cabaret Crusades is a cycle of films in which Egyptian artist Wael Shawky reexamines the history of the crusades by having the events re-enacted by puppets unleashed on cardboard battlefields. Due to the political upheavals in Egypt, Shawky was unable to complete the second part of his cycle for the previous edition of the festival. Nevertheless, the long awaited-premiere takes place this year. Inspired by Amin Maalouf’s book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, Shawky questions the socioeconomic motivations behind these ‘holy wars’ that left an indelible impression on the Arab world and its relationship with the West. Christians, Muslims, kings, caliphs, popes, martyrs and saints: all of them are puppets, but no one knows who is pulling the strings… A short-filmed drama with a surreal atmosphere combining drama and lyricism, Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo invites us to navigate through the territories of truth, myth and cliché. It is a history lesson that is as sensitive as it is penetrating.

A film by
Wael Shawky

Puppets design
Dominique Vial with Cyrille Despointes, André Maurin, Sourski, Pierre Architta

Puppets technique
Irene Lentini

Pierre Architta

Marion Poey

Jacques Sapiega, Gaëlle Rodeville

Logistics & mediation
Dominique Vial, Camille Curioni

Created in the frame of
Ateliers de l’EuroMéditerranée – Marseille-Provence 2013 at ADEF – École de Céramique de Provence & SATIS/ASTRAM Lab – Faculté des Sciences Aix-Marseille Université

Executive production
ALCIME – Festival International du Film d’Aubagne

Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Het Huis van Culturen en Sociale Samenhang van Sint-Jans-Molenbeek/La Maison des Cultures et de la Cohésion Sociale à Molenbeek-Saint-Jean

Created at
ADEF & SATIS ASTRAM Lab in the frame of Les Ateliers de l’EuroMéditerranée (Marseille Provence 2013)

Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Marseille Provence 2013 – Capitale Européenne de la Culture, Communauté du Pays d’Aubagne et de l’Étoile, SATIS/ASTRAM Lab – Faculté des Sciences Aix-Marseille Université & Wael Shawky

In collaboration with
l’ADEF – École de Céramique de Provence, Filière Argile du Pays d’Aubagne et de l’Étoile, les Ateliers Thérèse Neveu, l’Institut International de la Marionnette de Charleville- Mézières, la Régie Culturelle Régionale PACA, the public workshops of l’École Supérieure d’Art et de Design Marseille-Méditerranée, Holding Textile Hermès, Hermès Sellier & Emmaüs France

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Cabaret Crusades: a story in the land of Santons

How can fruitful encounters be brought about between artists and social actors? How can members of the public become fully involved in a cultural project?

The conditions in which Wael Shawky’s film has been made bear witness to an experiment currently being conducted in France in preparation for Marseille-Provence 2013, Europe’s next Capital of Culture.

Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo is an artistic creation which has brought together over two hundred people who are primarily volunteers: makers of ornamental Santon figurines and professional ceramicists from the Pays d’Aubagne et de l’Étoile in the south of France, students of ceramics, film and audiovisual techniques, as well as trainees and technicians. All have combined their expertise and enthusiasm to help make this joint work a success. This remarkable and very moving adventure for all involved is part of the EuroMéditerranée programme of workshops initiated by the Marseille-Provence 2013 Association. The EuroMéditerranée workshops offer creative residences to artists in venues that are not used for artistic creation. The programme has resulted in the involvement of over fifty artistic teams in all artistic fields since 2008, helping to build bridges between cultural and social actors.

The genesis of the project

When we met Wael Shawky in March 2011, he seemed to have quite a precise idea of his project: the production of the second part of an animated puppet film whose screenplay is based on Franco-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf’s book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. It gives readers a reversed and necessary view of a not particularly well-known period in our history when, from the 11th century onwards, lay men and women from all over Christendom – led by knights seeking adventure and glory – took it into their heads to win back the Holy Land in accordance with the Pope’s instruction: “God wants it”.

The first part of the film had been made in Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Cittadellarte, an 18th century former textile factory in Biella, northern Italy which had been completely renovated by this leading Arte Povera artist. It is an unconventional working space which provides artists with the optimum working conditions for research and creation as part of innovative exchanges with businesses in the region. It was in this visionary space that Wael Shawky found around a hundred puppets dating back some 150 years. He dressed them up and manipulated them, making several sets at the same time, and rounded off his work by shooting the film.

The plan was to make the second part in Egypt in early 2011 and take it to the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in 2011. The dawn of the Arab Spring decided otherwise. Civil and political unrest meant Wael Shawky had to abandon his work. His disappointment was palpable and almost reprehensible: an artistic project was no match for a revolution! Despite the existence of MASS, the production and training centre set up by Wael Shawky in Alexandria, it was a time for rebellion and winning freedom, so that put paid to the second part.

The process

The challenge therefore consisted of coming up with the ideal setting for Wael Shawky to conclude this project – to be followed by two further parts – within very tight timescales: exactly one year to stage a production where everything was yet to be made: puppets, screenplay, set design, the shoot… and presenting the film at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in 2012.

The Marseille-Provence 2013 project covers a huge area of 4,600 km2 combining 75 communes around Marseille. These include the town of Aubagne and more widely the Pays d’Aubagne et de l’Étoile which is home to a local expertise inherited from the Arab period: the craft of clay ceramics. This expertise gave rise to Santons, small figurines in the Christian tradition representing Bible and folk characters in nativity scenes which are displayed by families and in churches at Christmas.

We agreed that work should start in October 2011. We had just a few months, from April to July 2011, to get together the different partners involved in the project. The ADEF-École de la Céramique d’Aubagne-Provence was approached to make the prototypes of the different characters. We then met representatives of the ceramic craftsmen and women (Santon-makers and ceramicists) in Aubagne which had been badly hit by the financial crisis. Already overwhelmed by their hard day-to-day work (most of these people work 10 to 15 hour days alone in their workshops), some professionals thought it would be hard to find the time to support an artist’s work. Several meetings, discussions and the unwavering support of some of the Santon-makers and ceramists, councillors and MP2013 project coordinators in the Pays d’Aubagne et de l’Étoile enabled progress to be made. The International Puppet Institute in Charleville-Mézières offered support with its expertise in the art of making and manipulating puppets. The set design was also made locally in collaboration with an open workshop at the Ecole Supérieure d’Art et de Design Marseille-Méditerranée: several sets of dolls houses with Persian motifs, battle scenes and markets in the background.

By some miracle SATIS, the University of Provence’s audiovisual training department, also happens to be in Aubagne. Around fifty SATIS students were brought in on this project and the various stages of it: cutting, shooting, editing, post-production and subtitling. After three months making 110 ceramic puppets and 120 Santon characters, and two months creating hundreds of costumes, filming finally began in February for three months. The Chapel of Black Penitents became the venue for the shoot and the Ateliers Thérèse Neveu the base camp for a team which in the end consisted of over 200 people.

Christian nativity Santons. Chapel. Traditions. Crafts. Crusades. Holy Land. Powerful symbols throughout the creative process. The new work, Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo, will provide a wonderful concentration of reversed views of things, moving back and forth between a shared past and present, oblique thoughts and a crossing of cultures.

Wael Shawky’s project produced clarification. Going beyond tension, incomprehension and difference. Clarification around the desire of this extraordinary and fortuitous encounter, around the desire to go beyond one’s own fears and knowledge, in the belief that we are taking part in an extraordinary adventure in all its simplicity.

Sandrina Martins
March 2012

(translated by Claire Tarring)

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Wael Shawky (b. 1971) is an Egyptian video-artist and director. He lives and works in Alexandria. Shawky studied visual arts at the University of Alexandria and the University of Pennsylvania. His work consists of computer animations, short films and visual work. Shawky’s work has already been shown in various group and solo exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale (2003), Art Dubai (2009) and Theater der Welt (2010). His work has earned him numerous awards and is notably included in the collection of Tate Modern (London). His animation film Al Aqsa Park (2006) explores the complex interactions between politics and religion, fundamentalism and capitalism, religious rituals and the media’s influence. In 2010, Wael Shawky presented, at the Italian Cittadellarte gallery, his solo exhibition Contemporary Myths and the première of the first part of the Cabaret Crusades cycle: The Horror Show File.

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