In August 2017, Belgian artist Francis Alys was stuck between checkpoints in Iraq. He was travelling back from Mosul, where he was making the film Children's Games #19: Haram Football about children living under ISIS restrictions, who had devised a game of football that did not involve a ball. As he waited at the Peshmerga checkpoint in the village of Nerkzlia, he passed the time by filming children who lived in the rocky, hilly area.
"It was by chance," Alys says, of the encounter that resulted in Sandlines, an hour-long feature film that was released this year. "It's a place that's very protected, and brought up a lot of questions. How much do you want to be connected to the rest of the world? It means gains, but also losses."
In May 2018, Alys returned with the intention of making a short film about the children drawing lines in the sand – a caricature of the Sykes-Picot line that bisected the region in 1916. But he was struck by how little the children knew about the history of Iraq, despite having lived through the country's wars. In the opening sequence of the film a boy says he has never heard of Iraq. He lives "here", he says, in Nerkzlia.
Alys took this as an artistic opportunity. Together with the children, he and his co-director, Julien Devaux, recreated Iraq's history, teaching the children as they performed it, to give them some ownership over their past. "The game was to set minimal instructions, in terms of different scenes we wanted to re-enact, and let the children find their own way of acting it; to let them appropriate those historical figures and invent their own version of the story," explains Alys, who is now touring the film at festivals, including the Vienna International Film Festival, which runs until Sunday.
“One thing I found out very quickly is that there are many different versions of events, and each of them with some element of truth. It was not for me to be the authority. It was for them to give their own reading, and create a sort of parody of the adult world.”
Deliberately homespun costumes, such as a fat, flimsily affixed moustache for Saddam Hussein, give the performances a vaudevillian character. A game of leapfrog, in which the children tumble over each another, reflects the constant change of Iraqi leadership. The children smile and giggle, but it would be inaccurate to say they break character. They are working not in the categories of documentary or fiction, but in the gentle, sacred space of make-believe.
Adults are absent throughout the film, as are most built structures: it’s a vista of rolling hillsides, bleating farm animals and good-natured children in floppy shoes and with dusty faces.
Animals play the role almost of a conscience, punctuating scenes with instinctive reactions. One of the most stunning scenes takes place before the historical narrative begins, when two young shepherds call to their animals in shrill, repeated sounds, leading them across the hillsides.
"In the beginning the kids wanted to impress me," says Alys. "And the way they wanted to impress me was to show me that they were good shepherds.
“These children are little adults. They look after 45 to 60 sheep on their own. They’re up there in the desert with their sheep, they come back around three [in the afternoon], which is when we would start filming, with the same number of sheep. So to see these little adults embody these historical figures suited their nature.”
The film grows in complexity as it continues. The facade of fiction drops and the making of the film becomes part of it. In a scene where Saddam Hussein puts on a gas mask to ward against the American invasion – two boys in stars-and-stripes trousers who stir up sand with what appear to be leaf blowers – the young actor is asked to shoot the take again.
The light is growing dark, and Devaux warns he has only four minutes of battery left. Implacably, the boy allows the directors to rearrange his costume, and heads off into the distance to reshoot.
Alys has lived in Mexico City since 1986, and was part of its flourishing of the art scene in the 1990s. Since then he has become a major international artist, and will represent Belgium at the Venice Biennale in 2022.
But he has long roots in the Arab region, particularly through collaborations with the Ruya Foundation for contemporary culture in Iraq, with which he produced Sandlines. He has made versions of his Children's Games series – short films in which he documents playground games – in Iraq, Jordan, and Afghanistan, and in 2017 was part of the Iraqi Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
The instability of the region, it seems, provides him with the kinds of scenarios that his work thrills to: the informal systems that arise – or even outpace – institutional ones, such as the games that pass on from one generation to the next, despite epochal shifts such as war, regime change and migration.
Beyond the realm of what is taught in schools, written in books, or available on Google lie cultural continuities that are often more durable and profound.
Sandlines tests this meeting of the informal and the formal, matching the artist's and the children's limited understanding of the official Iraqi history with their caricatured version of events. In one scene, the children gather on the squalid steps of a breeze block house, as a puppet show enacts the Ba'athist coup that toppled the monarchy.
They boo, hiss and laugh at the characters that bob across the makeshift stage of fabric draped over a rusted metal bed. If there is a mournful edge to Sandlines, it is the adults off-screen, who have as much control over the shifting borders as do their children, giggling at the absurdity of it. They are in history, but what does history matter to villagers outside of Mosul who only want to live in peace?
In the film, ISIS is represented as an enormous shadow moving across the land, as a young girl in a long printed dress runs screaming. ISIS propaganda sings, “We’ve broken Sykes-Picot”.
The narrator, a young girl, explains the destruction. There is a pause in the film when it seems unsure of where to go next: Iraq's future is dangerously unclear. But Sandlines treats the febrile state of affairs as a cause for optimism. As the boys play, the girls look on from a hilltop, utterly unimpressed. The film ends with the girls using a mobile phone to shoot their own footage, trailing a new line of sand on to the earth.
“In a century where events have been quite cyclical and tragically repeating themselves, we tried to introduce a little bit of hope,” says Alys. “The game of leapfrog is meant to represent the cyclical nature of the history, and the girls are meant to take us out of there, and bring us a more hopeful future. That’s what I would like people to see. Iraqi women have been absent from Iraqi history. It’s time for them to intervene and take the lead.
"It's the only way I see to stop the cycle," Alys says, adding "I could say that about many places."
The Vienna International Film Festival runs until Sunday