Shadows of The Unseen / Movement Radio 5

Fifth episode of “Shadows of the Unseen” for movement_radio Athens. Aired on 28 February 2021.


1. Ameel Brecht – Tropico Fantasma
From Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos, 2019)
2. Bruce Langhorne – Everything was being used up
From Idaho Transfer (Peter Fonda, 1973)
3. Bernard Parmegiani – La ville en haut de la colline
From La ville en haut de la colline (Jean Vernier, 1969)
4. Ka Baird – The Kiss
From The Oneiric Bicycle (Sam Klickner, 2016)
5. Excerpts from O.K. End Here (Robert Frank, 1963)
6. Luis David Aguilar – Hombres de viento
From Hombres de viento (José Antonio Portugal, 1984)
7. Alain Pierre – Ô Sidarta
From Ô Sidarta (Michel Jakar, 1974)
8. Egisto Macchi – L’Eco Delle Gole
From Il Deserto (library record, 1974)
9. Hélène C. Savard, Stéphane Venne – Le temps perdu
From Le temps perdu (Michel Brault, 1964)
10. S Park – Sun High
From Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)
11. Excerpt from Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)
12. Wolf Eyes – untitled
From N.P (Lisa Spilliaert, 2020)
11. Toshi Ichiyanagi – Everything Visible Is Empty
From Everything Visible Is Empty (Toshio Matsumoto, 1975)
14. Kaoru Tomita – Midnight Parasites
From Kiseichuu no Ichiya / Midnight Parasites (Yoji Kuri, 1972)
15. Steven Brown – Voiture Jean Gina B.
From Jean Gina B. (Jean-Paul Ferbus, 1984)
16. Tibor Szemző – Airy Wedding
From D-FILM – Private Hungary (Péter Forgács, 1991)
17. Call Back the Giants – Samara Sands (The End)
From Samsara Sands (Dominic Pillai, 2013)
18. Giuliano Sorgini – Telecinesi (full + drums)
From Un urlo dalle tenebre / The Return of the Exorcist (Elo Pannacciò, Franco Lo Cascio, 1975)
19. Patrick Cowley – Primordial Landscape
From Muscle Up (Fox Studio, 1980)

The Night of Counting The Years

From the very beginning, I have had a cause.
My cause is our lost or missing history.
The people you see on the streets, in the fields, factories and even those at home… they all contributed once to forming, to creating life.
Those people have enriched human civilization.
How can we revive their creative role?
How can we restore their positive and constructive participation in life and human endeavour?
First, they have to know where they come from and what contribution they made.
We must form a link between the past and the present Egyptian, in order to attain the Egyptian of tomorrow.
This is my cause.

“You who go, you will return / You who sleep, you will rise / You who walk, you will be resurrected.” So begins Al-mummia or The Night of Counting the Years, Shadi Abdel Salam’s first and only feature film. The quote derives from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and it is not only indicative of the events depicted in the film but also of the lifelong desire that infused Shadi Abdel Salam’s work: to rekindle memory in view of activating the future.

After graduating from Victoria College in Alexandria and a short stint studying theatre arts in London, Abdel Salam studied architecture under Hassan Fathy, a man renowned for his promotion of pre-industrial design methods and materials. The crux of Fathy’s argument was a desire to return to the use of ancient mud brick forms, which he described as the “sole hope for rural reconstruction.” This concern for the duality of tradition and modernism, as well as of urban and rural life, undoubtedly influenced Abdel Salam in his forthcoming creative endeavours. Instead of pursuing a career in architecture, however, he opted for cinema, initially shaping his vision by designing decorations and costumes for numerous historical Egyptian films among which Wa Islamah [Sword of Islam] (Enrico Bomba & Andrew Marton, 1961), Almaz we ‘Abdou el Hamoulî [Almaz and Abdul Hamuli] (Helmy Rafla, 1962) and Al Nasser Salah Ad-Din [Saladin] (Youssef Chahine, 1963), as well as foreign films such as Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963), Faraon [Pharaoh] (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1966) and La lotta dell’uomo per la sua sopravvivenza [Man’s Struggle for Survival] (Renzo & Roberto Rossellini, 1964–1970).

It was notably Roberto Rossellini who proved to be instrumental in the procurement of the necessary funding for Al-mummia, a project that had occupied Abdel Salam ever since 1956, when he first read the story of the discovery of mummies in Dayr al-Bahri. Finding inspiration in a historical event that took place in 1881, on the eve of British colonial rule, when it was brought to light that a tribe had been secretly raiding the tombs of the Pharaohs in Thebes, the first-time filmmaker rigorously crafted a haunting meditation on identity, loss and legacy; its deeply melancholic tone tentatively reflecting the sense of demise felt at the time of shooting, in the months following the political cataclysms of 1967, as well as the passing of the filmmaker’s father. When completed, Rossellini ensured that the film received a substantial international audience at festivals throughout Europe in 1970, winning, amongst others, the Georges Sadoul Prize of the French Cinémathèque and the Golden Prize of the Carthage Cinema Festival in Tunis. However, the film was not to receive a release in Egypt until February 1975 — an event that was sadly eclipsed by the death of the renowned Egyptian contralto Umm Kulthum, which plunged the whole country into mourning. Death, it seems, kept on haunting the film.

Abdel Salam continued to delve into Egypt’s history and culture with subsequent cinematic projects, perhaps most notably the short film Shakawa Al-Fellah Al-Faseeh or The Eloquent Peasant (1970), based on a Middle Kingdom text of the same title, in which a peasant, wronged by a greedy nobleman, must rely on his elegant speaking style in order to attain justice. However, while responsible for a number of other short and documentary films after 1970, and being appointed as Director of the Centre for Documentary Films, the great sweep of Abdel Salam’s cinematic work began to take a single direction: preparations for his magnum opus, a film variously referred to as The Tragedy of the Great Royal House and as Akhenaton, which would have dealt “with the dynasty which preceded him [the Pharaoh Akhenaten] and that which followed him.” In spite of fifteen years of intensive preparation and research, during which he not only wrote the screenplay but also diligently designed the costumes, decors and decorations for the film, Abdel Salam was never able to see his dream project come to fruition. He passed away in October 1986, leaving us with a legacy that continues to brim with life and promise.

Compiled on the occasion of the online screening of Al-mummia, hosted by Sabzian and Courtisane on 21 January 2021, this small dossier consists of a selection of conversations with and writings on Shadi Abdel Salam, as well as the complete screenplay of Al-mummia and some of the drawings that he sketched in preparation for the film.

Stoffel Debuysere (Courtisane) and Gerard-Jan Claes (Sabzian)

Available on

Shadows of The Unseen / Movement Radio 4

Fourth episode of “Shadows of the Unseen” for movement_radio Athens. Aired on 24 January 2021.


1. Steve Potts – Bhagavad Gita
From Le sujet ou le secrétaire aux mille et un tiroirs (Joaquín Lledó, 1975)
2. William Greaves, Bill Dixon – Wealth of a Nation
From Wealth of a Nation (William Greaves, 1964)
3. Bruno Nicolai – Una vergine tra i morti viventi
From Una vergine tra i morti viventi / A Virgin Among the Living Dead (Jesús Franco, Jean Rollin, 1973)
4. Alexander Gradsky, Valentina Tolkunova – Lullaby
From Romans o vlyublyonnykh / Romance for lovers (Andrey Konchalovskiy, 1974)
5. Berto Pisano, Romolo Grano – Sacro e Profano
From Arcana (Giulio Questi, 1972)
6. Pierre Henry, François-Bernard Mâche – Soy leyenda
From Soy leyenda (Mario Gómez Martín, 1966)
7. Radio Free Europe, Bill Paxton – Taking Tiger Mountain
From Taking Tiger Mountain (Tom Huckabee, Kent Smith, 1983)
8. Jack Nitzsche, Barre Philips – Cat & Mouse
From Cruising (William Friedkin, 1980)
9. Acanthus (Daniel Buffet, Gérard Sallette)
From Le frisson des vampires / The Shiver of the Vampires (Jean Rollin, 1971)
10. Gong – What Do You Want
From Continental Circus World (Jérôme Laperrousaz, 1972)
11. Can – Tango Whiskeyman
From Deadlock (Roland Klick, 1970)
12. Karl Heinz Schäfer – La Victime
From Les Gants Blancs du Diable / The White Gloves of the Devil (Lazlo Szabo, 1973)
13. Jean-Michel Jarre – Le Car / Descente au Village
From Les Granges Brûlées / The Burned Barns (Jean Chapot, 1973)
14. Aminadav Aloni – The Crab, The Turtle, The Pelican And The Horse
From Once (Morton Leonard Heilig, 1973)
15. Jerry Goldsmith – Love Shop
From Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson, 1976)
16. Luc Ferrari – Cyclotron
From Cyclotron (Alain Bedos, 1978)
17. Billy Green – Eco Blue / Toadstrip
From Stone (Sandy Harbutt, 1974)
1B. Bruno Spoerri – Lilith, Singing in the Dark
From Lilith (Kurt Aeschbacher, 1979)

Voyage into Limbo

A small text I wrote (originally in Dutch) for Kunstenfestivaldesarts 2020 to accompany Wang Bing’s work Scenes: Glimpses From a Lockdown.

“You shouldn’t be here, Sir.” These are the words that can be heard spoken in a foreign language at the start of Scenes, Wang Bing’s new installation. The admonishment seems to be addressed off-camera to the film-maker as he points his camera at a huge throng of oil lorries that seem to be furloughed in the green suburb of an as yet unknown city. Is it a coincidence that Wang Bing has given this scene – in which attention is exceptionally drawn to himself – such an important place? After all, Scenes is the result of his first cinematographic foray outside his homeland of China: this is Lagos, the most populous city in Nigeria and, by extension, on the African continent.

But this is not the first time that the film-maker has been in places where according to the rules he “shouldn’t be”. Two decades ago as a recent graduate in photography and art, he travelled to the heart of the condemned industrial district of Tiexi, in north-east China. Without official permission, he spent two years here filming the maze of factory buildings and the living spaces that went with them. Using a rented DV camera, he managed to distinctively record the precarious lives of the remaining workers who were facing the slow deterioration of their living environment and job security. Using more than three hundred hours of footage, he created the monumental Tie Xi Qu/West of the Tracks (2002), a nine-hour documentary on China’s transition from an industry-based controlled economy to a consumption-based market economy, and on the ensuing erosion of the collective working class that has inexorably given way to the rise in cheap and temporary labour.

Ever since, Wang Bing has tirelessly focused on unjust and commonplace experiences in everyday life that is stifled all too often by the success of China’s “miracle of growth”. In a small mountain village in the province of Yunnan, he produced a portrait of three young sisters (San Zimei/Three Sisters, 2012) who had to look after themselves when their parents left to work in far-off cities – unfortunately something that is happening to tens of millions of children in China. In Ku Qian/Bitter Money (2016), he followed three young people leaving their village to look for work in the city of Huzhou in the east of the country, known for its huge temporary workforce. In this film and others, Wang Bing patiently takes stock of the impoverished material and social circumstances of migrant workers who are principally rural and cannot claim urban citizenship. This means that over a tenth of Chinese nationals are considered undocumented foreigners in their own country. From urban workshops where these “second-zone citizens” slave away for hours for a tiny wage and are painfully aware of what is commonly called “bitter money” to a remote psychiatric institution where mentally ill patients and political renegades are left to their fate (Feng ai / ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, 2013) or refugee camps where members of the Ta’ang, a Burmese ethnic minority, are trapped between violent civil war and the Chinese border (Ta’ang, 2016): in the internal geography of Wang Bing’s work, the uncertain lives of those who on the margins of society, in the middle of vast and rapidly changing landscapes in 21st-century China, are central.

Is it really such a great leap to Africa? Under the banner of the historical friendship forged between China and Africa since the post-colonial peak of the Non-Aligned Movement, exchanges between the two regions have actually developed a great deal in the last two decades, an evolution watched with attention on the world’s economic and geopolitical stage. While China likes to boast investments and large-scale infrastructure projects that in its view will result in a “win-win” situation, accusations of neo-colonialism are increasingly being made. As Lamido Sanusi, the former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, wrote: “China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism.” Yet the discussion about whether China is positioning itself as a colonising power or as a capitalist benefactor transcends a social and intercultural reality that is undergoing a complete transformation and poses huge challenges to both sides. The policy of China’s presence in Africa not only involves capital and goods, but the labour force as well, as reflected in the growing number of construction workers, road builders and shopkeepers in the socioeconomic fabric. Meanwhile, since the economic liberalisation of the 1990s, numerous African students and entrepreneurs have been trying their luck in major Chinese cities. This is especially the case in Guangzhou, a megacity in the south of the Pearl River Delta and one of the most populous regions in the world, which has become a retail industry hub between the economic superpower and several African states.

One of these shopkeepers is the central character in Scenes. Wang Bing met Kingsley in Guangzhou where he has a hairdressing business and buys merchandise for the shop he and his wife run in the Ikotun district of Lagos. This fortuitous encounter – something that continually drives his work – ultimately took Wang Bing to Africa in autumn 2019, a journey he had been waiting for for a number of years. The filming he did in Lagos provided the source material for a first version of the installation, which was part of the “China ⇋ Africa” exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. It shows fragments of Wang Bing’s first impressions of the African metropolis, from the agriculture and accumulation of rubbish on the outskirts to the retail outlets and carpool services in the centres. The Chinese presence is implicit in references to two of the main Chinese economic activities in Nigeria: oil extraction and mining. This happens to chime with Wang Bing’s previous investigations into the Chinese energy industry, Caiyou riji/Crude Oil (2008) and Tong dao/Coal Money (2009). However, it is also manifested in the thousands of motorcycle couriers whose bright green kit contrasts with the mostly drab urban landscape, not that different from similar services in Chinese cities. The courier service is also one of the visible traces of China’s recent entry on the African e-commerce and fintech landscape because the company in question aspires to be a multifunctional digital platform. Or how the flow of Chinese capital is gradually opening up a route into African online lives.

As China soaks up Africa’s natural resources, African states are importing huge quantities of cheap consumer goods bearing the label “Made in China”. It is goods like these that Kingsley and his wife stock in their shop, which seems to have been built in haste and where everything feels provisional. Wang Bing follows the couple and their young son as they roam through the packed network of streets and alleys in Ikotun, amid the multi-level tangle of modest stalls and narrow passageways of which their shop is part. He knows how to move his handheld camera in confined spaces like no one else, constantly adapting to the environment, always maintaining the right distance from people. He takes the time to observe their daily activity at length, a temporality that confers on them an existence on screen that transcends short-sighted clichés. It is in this constant scanning that Wang Bing manages to lose the negative connotations so often associated with filming in places where people say “you shouldn’t be”. That his work shows no hint of bleak voyeurism is down to his intense focus on what is in front of the lens, without claiming to know or understand in advance what should be seen. He does not take the position of someone who knows, but of someone who chooses to look, constantly lying in wait for something unexpected, for what cannot be captured in all-knowing frames. It is an approach that respects the visible dimensions of injustice and at the same time is radically opposed to the basic injustice that condemns “wretched of the earth” to invisibility or stigmatisation. Rather than trapping them in a context that is supposed to match their life, Wang Bing endeavours to achieve visibility that is open to glimmers of what might be possible.

Wang Bing’s installation in progress promises to become a diptych, with one part of it recorded in Lagos and the other part in Guangzhou. Meanwhile, the pandemic has not only postponed Kingsley’s planned trip back to China, but has also exacerbated the discrimination migrants face, whether they originally come from rural China or Africa. The draconian campaign to prevent the spread of the virus has hugely stigmatised them as high-risk populations, with the consequence that many have lost their homes and are deprived of any form of service. While inequalities in housing, healthcare, education, employment and security of residence continue to grow, migrant workers risk even greater precariousness. Wang Bing, who returned to Guangzhou in late April to continue filming, will doubtless not have missed these terrible developments. The tireless chronicler of the underside of the Chinese economic myth persists in focusing on the precarious lives that are generally condemned to obscurity. A task that authoritarian voices who stipulate where “you should or shouldn’t be” are too swift to ignore.