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 sabzian.be

Shadows of The Unseen / Movement Radio 5

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

TRACKLIST

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 sabzian.be

Shadows of The Unseen / Movement Radio 4

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

TRACKLIST

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)