The Case of Farrebique

If we were to choose one film to ponder over the debates on “realism” that occupied a large part of the 20th century arena of cinema, then let it be Farrebique (1946): George Rouquier’s magnificent chronicle of a year in the life of a farming family in Goutrens, Aveyron. André Bazin famously and vigorously defended the film against its detractors, who scornfully remarked that “cowpats are not photogenic” (Henri Jeanson) and that “it’s not even a documentary, rather a film which teaches us exactly nothing” (Jean Fayard), by declaring that the film’s singular accomplishment was to “deprive reality of all that has nothing to do with it, especially the parasitism of art”. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, James Agee lauded Farrebique as one of the rare films that was able to keep the original promise of cinema alive: the promise to capture “the cruel radiance of what is.” After all, he claimed, the camera was the central instrument of his time, able to do what nothing else in the world could do: “To record unaltered reality; and it can be made to perceive, record, and communicate, in full unaltered power, the peculiar kinds of poetic vitality which blaze in every real thing and which are in great degree, inevitably and properly, lost to every other kind of artist except the camera artist.”

The controversy around the film – a new Battle of Hernani, as Jean Painlevé phrased it – brought into sharp focus the limitations and paradoxes of some of the denominators that have been used ad nauseam to divide and evaluate the cinematic landscape: documentary and fiction, authenticity and duplicity, asceticism and artfulness. These considerations, however, could not have been further away from George Rouquier’s mind when he set out to film the life on Farrebique, a farmstead that had been owned by his relatives for generations. Between 1944 and 1945, he spent a year with the family whose manner of living is governed by the seasons, by the dinnertime ritual of the grandfather cutting and handing out slices of bread, and the toilsome management of farm life on the eve of the introduction of electricity. The first shots in the film linger on the cracks slithering up the walls of the farmstead. “The house needs to be repaired,” says the grandfather, setting in motion the plot of the film: a series of daily comings, goings, and disputes, from the installation of electricity to the birth of a child, from quarrels about the farm’s inheritance to the cruel anticipation of death. All this, Rouquier films with a poetic sensibility and a sense of composition and rhythm that summons echoes with the work of Chaplin and Flaherty, Eisenstein and Dovjenko. No wonder Pedro Costa, when presenting the film at the Courtisane festival in Ghent, described the film as a form of science-fiction, as if the most day-to-day events crystallize and glisten on the screen like we’ve never seen them before; as if the actions and gestures that are all too often set aside as meritless prove to be, against all odds, all too worthy of fiction.

After making Farrebique, Rouquier directed a series of short films, documentaries, and features before finding a sideline as an actor. In 1983, he went back to the region in order to make a sequel, Biquefarre, with some of the original characters from the first film, shot some forty years earlier. Recently, seventy years after its first appearance, Farrebique was given a new lease of life, thanks to a beautiful restoration by Les documents cinématographiques. At a moment when contemporary cinema is increasingly challenging its borders and divisions and is eagerly exploring both its documenting and poetic forces, Farrebique’s splendour might be shining brighter than ever, as its achievement, to use Agee’s words, remains “wholly of our time.”

Compiled on the occasion of the online screening of Farrebique, hosted by Sabzian and Courtisane on 18 February 2021, this small dossier consists of a selection of conversations with and writings on the film.

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

Available on

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

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.

Michel Khleifi : Fertile Memory / Mémoire Fertile


Publication compiled on the occasion of a retrospective film programme dedicated to Michel Khleifi, organized by CINEMATEK and Courtisane (Brussels, 26 September – 05 November 2019).

“What we see on the screen, or in any picture representing the solidity of Palestinians in the interior, is only that, a utopian image making possible a connection between Palestinian individuals and Palestinian land.”

It’s been almost four decades since Edward Said wrote this passage on Michel Khleifi’s first film, Sadh-dhakira al khisba (Fertile Memory, 1980), but it has lost none of its expressive force. For Said, the film managed, with astonishing precision and beauty, to call up the memory of his own mother and all those who have had their land seized by the Israeli state. In seeing the moment when one of the women portrayed sets foot on her own land that has been “repossessed” by Israelis, but that she stubbornly refuses to sell, Said was reminded of how separated he was from the experience of an interior that he could himself not inhabit. “At once inside and outside our world” was how he described the experience of exile, one that Michel Khleifi himself is not unfamiliar with. In September 1970, the month that would become infamous as “Black September”, Khleifi left the city of Nazareth in Galilee and found refuge in Brussels, where he devoted himself to the art of cinema. It was only a decade later that he returned to the place of his birth to shoot Fertile Memory, the first full-length film ever to be shot by a Palestinian filmmaker within the disputed West Bank “Green Line”.

Fertile Memory portrays the lives of two women bearing the weight of a double occupation: both the burden of Israeli domination and the restrictions of a patriarchal society. By showing the lived contra- dictions of life under occupation, Khleifi’s film marked an important shift in the history of Palestinian cinema, one that he would explore further in his subsequent work. In Urs al-Jalil (Wedding in Galilee, 1987), which was awarded the International Critics Prize at Cannes, the guests at a wedding are contorted between the modern military power of the Israeli occupant and the archaic patriarchal authority of the local government. In Nashidu alhajar (Canticle of the Stones, 1990), the love that is refound by a couple, since their forced separation during the war of 1967, is contrasted with the violence raging on the streets of Jerusalem during the first Intifada. In these and subsequent films, Khleifi, time and again, shifted the dividing lines between reality and fiction, between document and narration, in order to give form to the complexity of a world that is all too often reduced to commonplaces and newspeak.

The films by Michel Khleifi inevitably bear the traces of the turbulent times that Palestine-Israel has gone through in the past decades. Fertile Memory was finished just before the Lebanon war broke out; Wedding in Galilee was released shortly before the beginning of the First Intifada; Route 181 (2003), in which Khleifi and Eyal Sivan trace the demarcation line put forward by the UN in 1948, was made right after the outbreak of the Second Intifada, which led to the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Today, violence is once again on the rise and a solution seems to be further away than ever. As the continuity of land increasingly disappears from the lives of Palestinians, and narratives claiming the inevitability and irreversibility of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gain ever more traction, could Michel Khleifi’s “utopian images” still have something to say?

Stoffel Debuysere

Publication available via Courtisane bookshop