Interview with Francis Alÿs and Rafael Ortega, Nov. 9, 2022
On the Children’s Games
A few days prior to conducting this interview we wrote a short introductory paragraph about the Children’s Games as a way to prepare ourselves. We sent it to Alÿs and his collaborator Rafael Ortega beforehand:
The beautiful but also immediately difficult thing about your Children’s Games is that it is very hard to talk about them. The magical quality of the work is that it holds no secrets. It’s dazzingly direct, “it’s all there is.” At the same time, that clarity is deceptive. The videos sometimes seem like nothing more than trouvailles. But, of course, this is not the case. With this interview, we want to get a clearer view on how these videos came about, regarding pre-production, production, and post-production.
We will therefore not be asking questions about possible interpretations and underlying intentions. Not only because we know you do not generally like these questions but also because we think the question about the “meaning” of these videos, or about the “meaning” of a game, is ill-conceived. We regard these videos, and the games they document, as powerful, not because they convey certain ideas, not even because they testify to the supposed powers of imagination, but because they embody a specific way of interacting with the world. The strength of the series is the fact that these games are shown to be, to a certain extent, “without any meaning or intention.” We want to avoid clichés about the so-called pedagogical value of playing since we consider that playing has no instrumental value, properly speaking. Playing does not really teach us anything except what Michael Taussig has called “the mastery of non-mastery,” that is, the sustained, deeply human reaction to things that will not ever be fully controlled.1 These videos and the games they document indicate for us first and foremost a specific response to very specific objects, landscapes, and environments. We want to take their embodied and material quality seriously and will therefore not be fishing for artistic statements.
Francis Alÿs: I very much liked the introductory text. I mean, you said it all.
Stéphane Symons: Perhaps, then, we can start by going back to the origins of the project. Was it clear from the first video onwards (Children’s Game #1: Caracoles (1999)) that this would be a long-term project? Was it a planned shoot? And did you already know from the outset that this would be part of a collection of documented games that would be multiple years in the making?
Alÿs: Back in 1999, it was a planned shoot in as far that it was a remake of a scene I had seen a few days earlier in that same neighborhood in the outskirts of Mexico City, where my collaborator Emilio lives. At the time, I was working on the “mechanics of rehearsal,” with Rafael as it happens. The main film we were working on involved a small red Volkswagen going up and down the hill, responding to the rehearsal session of a band from Juchitán (Rehearsal I [El Ensayo] (1999–2001)). And the other film was a striptease scene which was produced in a strip club in New York City a bit later (Rehearsal II (2001–2006)). Both were about Latin America’s relationship to the concept of production and the dogma of efficiency; they were recalling the Latin American scenario in which modernity is always postponed. When I saw that boy kicking a plastic bottle up a hill, the scene had an immediate echo with the rehearsal films. But it was not at all thought of as the document of a children’s game. That only came much later.
The next one, Children’s Game #2: Ricochets (2007), was a scene we encountered with Rafael, this time on a beach in Tangier. A bunch of boys were skimming stones across the waves of the Strait of Gibraltar. Again, there was a very strong connection with the project we were working on (Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River (2008)), which was creating the illusion of a bridge with lines of children pushing little boats made with shoes from both sides of the Strait. Those littles stones wanting to reach the horizon were another illustration of the same story. The whole scene was filmed in fifteen minutes.
Rafael Ortega: The children we were working with started playing. While now they have a completely different structure, at the beginning these videos always came about through chance and observation.
Alÿs: Chance encounters.
Ortega: When Francis discovers games through such chance encounters, I always see them before the shoot, in drawings in a sketchbook. They have already been recorded in a graphical form rather than a filmic one. For example, when we did the video with the Volkswagen, we found certain points of connection. We created a maquette of the rehearsal of the Volkswagen with a camera and Francis went to this area of the city to look for a place where we could film. He then encountered the boy with the bottle. And so it bounced back one from the other.
While doing the project in Tangier, one of the kids who was very bored started picking up stones and throwing them. All of a sudden something happened. Francis started making drawings that had to do with this idea. We were already at work on the project of the bridge. This was like a symbolic bridge that was being built in the air.
Alÿs: Interestingly enough, the Gibraltar project was a turning point for me. It was my second attempt to build a bridge across different continents. We had done an earlier attempt between Havana in Cuba and Key West in Florida (Bridge/Puente (2006)). This time, the idea was to do a similar project across the Strait of Gibraltar, collaborating with the communities of fishermen of both African and European continents. This gave rise to extremely complex negotiations with local powers, which on the Moroccan side even went all the way to King Mohammed, who was about to open a new harbor next to Tangier and wanted to use our image of a bridge across the Strait as a sort of propaganda image. Our project was turning into something completely different. My disappointment with the response of the adults made me turn to the children of the beaches from both sides and ask them to become the protagonists of my project instead of the adults. And from there on, the children took over developing scenarios and assuming the protagonistic role in my projects.
But to get back to your earlier question, it was probably around that time that I took on the habit to film children’s games, even though at first it was just a way of making contact with cultures I knew little to nothing about. The contemporary art world has this peculiar habit of inviting you to operate in contexts which are completely foreign to you. This was the case when Carolyn Barkiev invited me to Afghanistan in 2010, where I felt completely out of place. I started filming children playing on the street as a way to break the ice and try to find an entry point. Doing that also allowed me to gauge how people reacted to the presence of an outsider and to a camera. It’s a sort of mutual observation process which allows me to learn fast about the local cultural codes and feel what can and cannot be done, which can go from the prohibition to film women to how you place your feet when you are sitting next to someone. From the trip to Afghanistan onwards, when I would arrive in a new location, the first thing I would do would be to ask to be taken to places where kids are playing, always in the open air and public spaces. That is where a relation might eventually start, simply by observing. In some cases it can lead to a project, like it did in Afghanistan, where the children excelled at the game of stick and wheels. Children’s Game #7: Stick and Wheels (2010) inspired Reel-Unreel (2011), with the wheel simply replaced by a film reel. Of course, other elements feed the story, like the episode of the Taliban burning the national film archive. It is important to clarify that I was invited to all the places where the children’s games were filmed. It was not a deliberate choice to go to, for instance, Sri Lanka to film a specific game. The filmings happened because I was invited to do a project somewhere, and that eventually led to the documentation of a local game. But game after game a project was taking shape.
Gerard-Jan Claes: There is a certain similarity between the various games. Most of the games deal with an object and a fixed set of rules. There are not a lot of games based on roleplay or forms of theater. Was that focus something you developed as the project progressed? Was there a certain point when it became clear what kind of games you were looking for? And which games you did not want to film?
Alÿs: At first, it was totally random. Wherever I would be invited in some unfamiliar context I would film children’s games and whichever game I would encounter would enter the compilation. This sort of ethnological archive of shared experiences around the world seemed to build in significance with each new game and each new culture entering the series. I certainly favor games that can be made out of nothing, or out of anything that can be found on the site of the game, like a handkerchief, some pebbles, an empty can, ... It’s often about invention and adapting the context to the end of the game, like with the kids in Amman using old train tracks to delineate the boundaries of their marbles game. It is not an absolute rule but if there is a prop, it should be a simple one, like in jump rope (Children’s Game #22: Jump Rope (2020)). In its first phase, the series was indeed essentially building upon chance encounters.
This has changed over the years. When I am invited somewhere now, I do some research beforehand and plan more ahead which games could best enrich the series. For example, when I was invited for the Lubumbashi Biennale in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I really wanted to film the Kisolo game, a variant of the Mancala game, partly because it is one of the most ancient games surviving today – possibly as old as 3000 years – but also because it seems this game might come from that region of the world (Children’s Game #26: Kisolo (2021)). Once there, I came across many unexpected games, like Nzango and the one with the tire (Children’s Game #28: Nzango (2021), Children’s Game #29: La roue (2021)). I ended up filming five other games over three visits. For three of them, it’s actually the kids who pulled me by the sleeve to show me their favorite games.
Paradoxically, the more games enter the series, the more “holes” appear. So far, very few games in the series play on words or receive their rhythm from rhymes. I can only think of Rock-Paper-Scissors, Nzango, and Step on a Crack. But, when seen together, games can also become the portrait of a society at a particular moment of its history, like Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games [Kinderspelen] (1560), a painting I saw as a child and which really made an impression on me. In my children’s games compilation, I am opening up the series to a more global panorama because I think the extraordinary coexistence of similar games at opposite corners of the planet is a natural consequence of today’s globalization. Whereas some games are still specific to a local culture, others have a more universal quality, like hopscotch or knucklebones. Others can also be syncretic, when a culture adopts and adapts a game originally coming from another culture and creates its own version of the game. There are distinguishing and uniting elements in all games. I hope the series illustrates as much the singularity of cultures as the many transcultural aspects of childhood experience.
During the pandemic something fascinating happened to the very popular – and transcultural – game of Chase Tag, also called “It.” In 2020, at the height of the spread of the virus all over the world, a game appeared in which the chaser was the virus itself or someone infected with it. The virus would be chasing the others players who would become infected when tagged. This adaptation of the classic tag game was reported in around fifty countries over the world. I was fortunate to document its Asian version in Hong Kong (Children’s Game #24: Pandemic Games (2020)) and its Mexican version (Children’s Game #25: Contagio (2021)). It is a fantastic example of how the act of playing can help children cope with traumatic experiences by turning the dramatic circumstances around them into a more fictional, ludic world.
What strikes me is that games are transmitted from one generation to another without any apparent volition. It just happens. Or happened. Because things are changing. Games that existed for centuries are becoming more difficult to encounter. Kisolo is a good example: the elders still knew how to play it, but it was not easy to find children that could still play Kisolo. My decision to focus more on the series now certainly has to do with that feeling of loss. Maybe the pandemic accelerated this phenomenon, or at least made it more obvious ... The compilation came from the desire to preserve a memory of a form of children’s social interaction that is slowly disappearing, be it because of the omnipresence of cars in cities, because of the growing dependence of children on social media and digital entertainment, or because of the parents’ concerns about the safety of their children in the public space. You name it ... Whereas children’s games have been transmitted orally for centuries and in some cases thousands of years, today they are slowly being eradicated from our way of life. I am not sure whether that is a good or a bad thing. It is not for me to judge, and it is too early to judge. But it is important to register that moment of transition. And there are still so many essential games which I would love to incorporate!
Symons: Can you explain to us how the videos are produced exactly? And how does your collaboration take shape?
Ortega: When we were doing The Rehearsal, Francis went to make Children’s Game #1: Caracoles and asked me for a camera. He asked me for a wide-angle lens because he wanted to follow the boy around and film the scene himself. This was just something he tried to register one way or another. But Francis evolves in his moving-image language and rethinks his ways of creating it ... he works on it. Children’s Game #2: Ricochets was very much of the moment. We had been working closely together on the project in Tangier so he just told me to look at a particular scene he encountered. We both jumped into that situation and kind of “covered” the minimal aspects of the image ...
Alÿs: ... the “essential” aspects.
Ortega: For Children’s Game #5: Revolver (2009) we used a Super8 camera. Francis had some rolls of film, and he asked to use my camera. For me, Children’s Game #5: Revolver is a very important piece. Unlike video, a roll allows you to film for only three minutes. I remember telling Francis that he had to edit in the camera, while filming. Whatever he was filming, he had to run and cut. But that is something he already knew. Children’s Game #5: Revolver is also a fascinating project because Francis started working on the language itself. For a collaborator, it is very interesting when it is clear what Francis is looking for. He has certain questions to get to certain places but the original, seminal idea of the Children’s Games was already there through drawings and photographs.
Alÿs: Some games are relatively straightforward. Others are quite complex. Before filming, we need to fully understand the mechanics of each game. What is the role of each player? What rules are there to organize the interaction? What is the goal of the game, if there is one? Is it a mixed-gender game? In most cultures, games are the first moment of gender separation. Through this preparation, we know which information we will need to capture in order to build a clear narrative during the editing process, one that will allow the viewer to understand the game without the help of written information. With the first images we try to give the viewer a hint of where the games take place, in what part of the world. This cancels out unnecessary questions and helps the viewer enter the game faster. No matter how good or bad we film, all those components have to be present. Maybe this is what makes them different from the many videos of games one can find online. In our videos the games are self-explanatory.
Ortega: Throughout making the small films – small in terms of duration and production – certain rules have been developing themselves. There is no use of props. However beautiful the image may be, it is useless if it does not help you to understand the game. At the end of the film, you need to have a general overview. You need to somehow understand why, for instance, a participant has an advantage over someone else when he has an object and the other person hasn’t. You have to understand the rules of the game. And the games do not happen nowhere. They always happen in a specific place, which has to be part of the film. This place needs to be “described” one way or another and comes with its own set of rules. It is a completely different “ball game,” as they say, if you are filming kids who are nine or twelve years old, or if you are filming two kids in the company of twenty-four kids who are of all ages.
Symons: Are the preparatory drawings like storyboards? Do you already anticipate the angle of the camera and the editing of the videos?
Alÿs: No, drawing can be a way to prepare myself, but it rarely addresses the games themselves. As you and Gerard-Jan put it in the short text you sent us, the magical thing about a game is that it’s all there is. If anything, the drawings or small paintings I may do on location depict the context in which the games take place. If they were made before the visit, they are rather meant to create a sort of mental build-up before the rush of the filming. Because of my present family situation, I cannot travel for months. I travel for short periods. When I arrive, I have to be prepared, already emotionally connected with the place and my local partners. I need to be ready to jump in. And once the game is launched, it’s the children who are in charge of the script. We are just reacting and adapting to the choreography of their play.
Recently, we made a film in Copenhagen with very young kids dancing in couples, holding an orange between their little foreheads. It is a very simple balance game (Children’s Game #34: Appelsindans (2022)). When we started filming, two interesting things happened. One is that I filmed mostly with my phone. Although in itself every image was “true,” little by little I started adjusting my shot, finding the right distance to the players, the best angle, the appropriate height, etc. ... It all happened very quickly and sort of instinctively. The whole thing took at most a couple of hours, with many breaks. The other interesting thing is that when we film with two cameras, whether it is with Rafael or with Julien, it becomes a game of cat and mouse between us. There is a sort of unconscious knowing which field is being covered by the other’s camera. A game within the game if you want. I do not remember saying: “I do this, you do that.” It just happened that Rafa filmed a certain thing, and I filmed something else. Ideally, we will ask to the children to play the game four to five times. That allows us to follow different players and focus on different moments of the action. The repetition is particularly useful when I am filming on my own. After all, games are also about repetition.
Ortega: The first stage is indeed always that you jump into the game. Otherwise, you cannot film it. You need to track the frame because the kids move out of it, and you need to get close to them again. Often, you don’t really understand the game, because they are playing it. The only way that Francis and I can actually erase ourselves from the cinematic point of view is to somehow become part of the game. That way, the kids do not interact with the camera, and the camera does not become a particular character. This explains why Francis has started using the phone in certain projects. The point of view that he wants to get, you cannot always get with the camera. The collaboration really develops mostly with the children. It is a very interesting kind of pull and let go.
Alÿs: I think that the children accept us because they can see that we take their game very seriously. They appreciate that. Sometimes they can see that we are not fully understanding – we, limited adults – and they will help us grasp the full logic of their actions. They want to give us the best of their skills, what Michael (Taussig) indeed calls the “mastery of non-mastery.” In all the games we filmed, the children were so much more generous than we expected. Sometimes they even protect us. They for instance make a discreet sign when they see a potential problem or danger rise on the horizon, behind the scene where the game takes place. They can see that we are so absorbed into their play that we are completely unaware of what is happening around us. That happened to me both in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq.
Ortega: One of the reasons why we both love to do these projects together is that you cannot direct kids. The possibility of a project in which you do not have total control is profoundly attractive. It is fulfilling, since it brings you back to the human humbleness that is necessary to communicate with other people. This is something that I really enjoy. At some point you feel like you have suddenly understood everything, and you realize: this is going to be the perfect shot.
Alÿs: Yes. And when that moment of grace happens, time seems to contract. While you film, you already feel whether this story is going to last four or five or seven minutes, you can sense how long the narrative, the structure, and the development of the game will be.
Ortega: When Francis and I are filming the games, we usually want to just keep on going because we are learning how to film it while we are filming it. We are going against the resistance, the time, and the concentration gap that we can find with the children. At some point they will lose interest in the game. There is a very interesting moment when Francis turns around and asks me: “Do we have it?” It is an incredible moment because we usually have no idea if we have it or not. We just know that we have reached the limits of the children’s attention span. From that moment on, we create a backup of the material. Francis keeps a copy, and I keep a copy as well, in case somebody loses the hard drive.
The next step is that Francis and I check the material. I check it more on the technical side, to verify whether it has had exposure, whether it is in focus, whether the sound works, etc. I go over it and randomly pick takes and start watching. And I kind of make a film in my mind while Francis comes up with another film in his editing space.
Alÿs: When editing, the rushes will always be what dictates how to tell the story. You cannot cheat with the material: what you have got is essentially guiding you throughout the editing process. Each Children’s Game filming comes with a strong sentimental component. It is always a very moving experience, but that is the little story and can be misleading at the moment of editing. You can resist the process of following the rushes and try to fit in every moment and emotion. But you know that, eventually, what does not fit into the narrative will have to be edited out.
Claes: Can we say that the set of rules of the game dictate the form and editing of the video? There are different scopes of production. Children’s Game #29: La roue, for instance, has a larger scope of production than many other videos. How are those choices made?
Ortega: La roue is a game that seems very simple. It could have been just one long shot. The guy goes up and comes down, goes up again and comes down again. That’s it. But as a filmmaker, you can make the simplest thing hyperbolically complicated. There is no formula for that. In the collaboration with Francis, this shift of the rules is very fascinating. He is open to that shift.
Alÿs: In the case of La roue it was the locals – in particular, the ‘fixer’ – who were really keen on us meeting those kids, La troupe des acrobates de la mine de Lubumbashi. They were rehearsing right next to a mine terril, doing all sorts of tricks with big tires with the mine dump as their background. They would also play in some residual dunes right next to the terril. The connection with the Sisyphus myth was obvious.
There are two reflections in response to your question. One is of a more general nature and has to do with the production of my work over the years. If I look back, I went from making personal fictions early on to making a sort of docu-fictions, like the project in Kabul (Reel-Unreel (2011)), or the one on the border of Armenia and Turkey (The Silence of Ani (2015)). Over the last few years, I have been looking for more of an ethnological documentary approach. The early films of Kiarostami have always been a great guide. I feel very indebted to them. I know it is a bit presumptuous to draw a parallel. But it is funny to think that he started his cinematographic career by making didactical short films with and for children. I might be finishing, or at least completing, mine, with these short didactical videos with children and, hopefully, as well for them.
Anyway, in certain games, the context calls for a more complex reading, a double-layered one if you want. In the case of La roue, this had to do with child labor. Directly below the mine terril where we were filming, there was clandestine digging involving child labor. The same exploitative practice was taking place in several villages of Haut-Katanga.
It was impossible to ignore that situation. The game had to somehow address that harsh reality. My response was to make of the children a kind of superheroes who overcome their destiny by subduing the mining dump. They turn the dramatic circumstances around them into a more fictional, ludic world. During the shoot the boys even invented a beautiful song of hope and recovery. It is a debatable decision to give a twist to the documentation of the game, and I have to take it on. I am aware that there are many other ways to address the situation. Children’s Game #15: Espejos (2013), which was shot in Ciudad Juárez, is somewhat similar. The bits of mirror are like shooting rays that have an almost Star Wars-like effect. The game addressed the situation of narcoviolencia (drug violence) that deeply affected that community living along the US-Mexico border.
My second reflection comes from having watched the public at the Venice Biennale. I could really feel there were different experiences of watching the games. There were different spans of attention, and so differences in the way the games had been registered. Some of them are a straightforward documentation and, as Rafa said, entirely led by the action. In some other cases, a sort of micro-narrative unfolds throughout the documentation of the game itself. La roue and Espejos belong to that category. Children’s Game #19: Haram Football (2017), shot in Mosul, Iraq, belongs to the same category because its historical context was as important as the game itself. You could even say that that game is the direct consequence of a historical moment.
Ortega: Returning to your question about the production of the videos, I want to point out that filmmaking is a métier. It is an enormously creative thing and a craft. People do not often realize that a show of thirty games presents an average of one hundred and fifty minutes of film. That is a very long montage. But I do not think that Francis considers himself a filmmaker in any particular way. He considers himself an artist. Filmmaking is just support. The language he uses within the moving image is art. It is contemporary art, not necessarily film or movies. This métier of filmmaking probably explains the collaborations with other people. When Francis and I started working together in the nineties, I had already been making films for a good ten years. But I am just one of the collaborators. Félix Blume and Julien Devaux are the other ones.
Alÿs: Indeed, these collaborations are of crucial importance. Julien is an invaluable partner because his approach to filming is quite different from mine. His is more cinematographic, I would say, whereas mine is more punk, as he would say. But we both instinctively feel what images will best tell the story. In a way, our different languages are complementary. Over the years Félix’s collaboration in recording and editing the sound grew into a key component of the video documentation of the games. There is so much more emotional power that can be delivered through sound. Both have been extremely generous!
Ortega: Indeed. One of the things we have to point out when we exhibit the Children’s Games is that you cannot control the sound. You can try to more or less level it but twenty games with five children per game is already one hundred children talking and laughing. When you put one hundred children in a room, you are not going to get a quiet ambience.
Symons: There are two ways of bringing this series to the public. There are the shows, which can indeed have the visual and auditory effect of a chaotic playground, but there is also the website where all of the videos can be quietly looked at, alone and in one’s private space. Why did you decide to make the videos available for free, and what kind of spectatorship do you have in mind here?
Alÿs: I do not in any way want to commercialize the films. We do it because we love it. And for the vanity of the arts. Putting them into the domain of the Creative Commons is a direct, clear statement. Also, before I start filming, I always tell all the people involved that they will be able to download and watch the films, that the films will not be commercialized, and that nobody is making money out of this. This makes the relation much healthier. Because it is a question I am often asked, let me add that the children are always paid for their collaboration, or given presents, and so are their parents or family members. The only instance about which I am not sure was in Copenhagen, since the museum (Copenhagen Contemporary) was in charge of the production. On some occasions donations were made to the local school or youth club.
Ortega: The question of social media is interesting here. When you put something in the domain of the Creative Commons, people make it theirs. This is very interesting for me because it puts me into contact with a lot of people. I meet all kinds of people who work with children or, for instance, visit refugee camps to help children as part of NGO work. Some of these people have used the Children’s Games as a trigger to talk to children in particular situations. A friend of mine works as a psychiatric researcher and uses the Children’s Games with some of the patients to talk about their memories of childhood. The series has become something completely and gloriously uncontrollable. In some way, social media is part of the spirit of the project. The series is about making visible. We see something that is not often seen. We want to witness and share these things.
Alÿs: Social media is the reality of our times. When I am on the subway, lots of people are watching “reels” on their phone. I often find myself peeping over their shoulders to see what they’re watching. What is it that captures people’s imagination and fantasy, and where do we filmmakers and artists stand in the infinite proliferation of images of our times? We are at the dawn of a new era. I feel like a dinosaur, yet I want to be part of that conversation. Social media is a revolutionary platform. Some kids film a dog-and-cat fight in their backyard. It then goes viral and within a week has reached millions of viewers. How can we compete with that?
Ortega: We wake up every morning saying: “Who needs another video?”
Alÿs: Absolutely. Nowadays, to show, to present something is a complete blind date. You do not know how people are going to react. There are so many new parameters, not just about the content, but also about authorship and the context, even about the language. But I must say that the response in Venice came as a great surprise. The installation was complete madness because we had changed the project a few months earlier and the timing was extremely tight. The last game had been shot six weeks before the opening, and most games were filmed during the pandemic. Some videos, like Children’s Game #30: Imbu (2021), were still being edited while we were installing. Still, we managed to make contact with the audience in Venice. Maybe this was due to certain external factors, for instance, our coming out of the pandemic lockdowns, the sudden realization that watching children playing on the street is becoming a scene of the past, the then recent entry of Russian troops into Ukraine... Who knows. But something happened. Lots of people were very moved while visiting the pavilion. Some cried, some laughed, there were lots of emotions flying in the air, and the need of the visitors to watch convivial events together. François Truffaut once said that cinematic success is not always the result of good brainwork but can also just be an accidental coincidence of our own preoccupations and the public’s.
Claes: The Children’s Games contain documentary shots but never present a mere couleur locale. There is always a certain distance. Does this mean that you already have an interpretation in mind while filming? And is this interpretation part of the artistic process?
Alÿs: I am sure I often arrive at the filming location with my petites histoires in mind. However, the game’s action will quickly take over. Even my own understanding and interpretation of the game will evolve during the making. In a sense, everyone finds something different in them, or recognizes something different; games are very rich in meanings and generous in potential readings. It is not for me to interfere with that process. Not to mention that I have chosen to produce images because of my limits with speech. I like to keep their reading open.
When I am on location behind the camera, I am essentially trying to coincide with the moment. And, when editing, to stay true to my experience of that moment. This does not necessarily mean to simply reproduce the scene as it happened. It’s about choosing and assembling images that will recreate for someone else the emotional bubble you were in. To achieve that, one has to sometimes fictionalize details.
Ortega: This emotional sphere, and staying true to it, is something that really cannot be explained. For instance, some people draw the camera to them. In those cases, you know perfectly well that taking your camera away from them will mean that they are not going to exist in the film. As a filmmaker, you have an intuition that the camera has to be drawn to these particular people at that specific moment. I have told Francis a thousand times about one of the rules that stuck with me when I was starting film school: “If you did not film it, you cannot edit it.” You cannot try to go there later if you have initially missed it. Francis and I can be intuitive with certain things.
Symons: Did this emotional sphere change in any way since you started the series almost twenty-five years ago? I am thinking of, amongst other things, the personal use of cameras and the self-awareness that this brings. Do you have the feeling that the young people you are filming have become less spontaneous and, perhaps, are losing the ability to be immersed in play?
Alÿs: Regardless of the presence of a camera, the playing always ends up taking over. I am thinking of Children’s Game #34: Appelsindans. During the first couple of games, they were laughing and there was a lot of...
Ortega: ... fooling around!
Alÿs: Yes. The same thing tends to happen on many occasions. In the first couple of games the kids are joking and laughing a lot. By the third go, they are becoming more competitive, and by the fifth it’ll be more about skills and who takes the lead. This brings me to another aspect: no matter how much we try to give a “horizontal” representation of the game – including all the players both in the filming and its editing – there are inevitably some children who end up taking a more protagonistic role. They will become the characters that will run the game. But we always make sure that all participants appear.
Ortega: I do notice a change in the emotional sphere of a game. There used to be moments when you were filming a child and the child had no idea that he was being filmed. Perhaps nobody had ever filmed him before. But now, at least the kids we filmed in Children’s Game #34: Appelsindans have been filmed since they were born. I am not saying that they are image conscious already, but they are conscious that the camera is there and that it is registering something that they are doing. There is a much shorter margin these days: if the game does not take over immediately, Francis and I cannot make a video. If they do not get into the game, they start to realize we are filming, and they might no longer want to be filmed. Sometimes we have to interrupt the game. We might ask them to have a biscuit and explain that everything is going fine. Or we might put them in a circle and ask them how they are feeling, invite them to get their hands up or loosen up. Sometimes we might do something funny or try to re-engage them.
Alÿs: Let me tell you what happened when we presented Children’s Game #29: La roue in Lubumbashi to the community where the games were filmed. The video is fairly long, eight and a half minutes, but after four-and-a-half minutes the children who played in the video stood up and started a choreographed cheering in which they were raising their arms, chanting, and dancing. They did this three or four times over the course of the screening. They wanted to interact directly with the moving image projected behind them. Interestingly, when they were doing this, they were looking at the public, and no longer at the images ...
Whenever possible, I try to present the films where they have been produced. It was possible in Afghanistan, thanks to my friend and collaborator Ajmal Maiwandi. In Iraq, too, it was possible to present Sandlines, The Story of History (2018–2020), a feature film enacted by the children of a small mountain village near Mosul. But we could only show them the first cut, not the film’s final version. To return the story to the community can change things. In Iraq, for example, the screening took place before the second and final shoot. Initially, the girls of the village had not been allowed to participate, but after seeing the first cut, they really wanted to participate. This time their parents allowed them to. Their entry opened up the story and made me completely change the script. Eventually, it allowed us to find a way out of the story, and it’s the girls who had the last word.
It is never easy to show your own work but the toughest test is when you show it to the people you filmed. It’s the moment you are most vulnerable and ... naked. It is also the moment where you instantly see all the mistakes you made in the editing. The viewers might not even notice it, but just their breathing will tell you when a scene is three seconds too long, or five seconds too short, or simply not necessary. The critical reading that the participants of the film offer is unique. Just sitting with them and watching the video together makes you instantly step out of the fantasy you had created in your editing room.
Presenting the film to the people who performed it is also a very humbling experience. You wish you could have done better. Almost always. Only in a few rare cases, the opposite occurs. You realize how fortunate you were to capture a moment that will not repeat itself. Not for them, not for you. As an artist, as an author, as a filmmaker, this is what keeps you going. Those moments of grace when you coincide with a collective reality. They are what keeps you in the game.
- 1Michael Taussig, Mastery of Non-Mastery in the Age of Meltdown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020).
This text appeared originally in Francis Alÿs. The Nature of the Game, edited by Gerard-Jan Claes and Stéphane Symons (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2023), available in paperback and OpenAccess.
(1) Making of Francis Alÿs, Children’s Game #8: Marbles (2010) | Amman, Jordan [photo by the artist]
(2) Children’s Game #34: Appelsindans (Francis Alÿs, 2022) | Copenhagen, Denmark [still]
(3) Children’s Game #29: La roue (Francis Alÿs, 2021) | Lubumbashi, DR Congo [still]
(4) Francis Alÿs, Children’s Game #33: Schneespiele (2022) | Engelberg, Switzerland [still]
All images are courtesy of the artist.