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Cabaret Crusades re-creates the 11th-century war against Islam—with puppets!

Wael Shawky directed this experimental trilogy about the European campaign to save Christianity.

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An ambitious and frequently overwhelming history lesson, Wael Shawky's three-part experimental work Cabaret Crusades covers dozens of historical actors and several centuries' worth of events over its three and a half hours. Its principal subject is the first three Crusades—which took place from the end of the 11th century to the beginning of the 13th—though Shawky also considers the seventh-century schism between Sunni and Shia Islam and various European and Middle Eastern political intrigues contemporaneous with the Crusades. The films are triumphs not only of historical research but of creative design, performed entirely with marionettes against gorgeous, handmade backdrops. As in the memorable Cambodian documentary The Missing Picture (2013), nonhuman figures contribute to a thoughtful depiction of atrocity that requires viewers to imagine the worst details.

Shawky employs different kinds of marionettes for each part, and each carries a different connotation. In The Horror Show File (2010, 32 min.) the characters are 19th-century wooden marionettes from Turin, Italy, their antique look providing a tangible connection to the past. The first installment examines the anti-Muslim bigotry in Europe that prompted the Pope and other leaders to persecute Arabs, and the puppets' European design mirrors the European origins of the Crusade. For The Path to Cairo (2012, 61 min.) Shawky switches to clay marionettes, inspired by a line in the Koran stating that human beings were originally made of clay. Not coincidentally, Cairo focuses on Middle Eastern rulers who formed political and military alliances during the Crusades, worsening the bloodshed in their region.

Shawky manages to bring some levity to the tragic stories. Several characters in Cairo are portrayed as talking camels, and in The Secrets of Karbala (2015, 120 min.) some of the political leaders are portrayed as talking dragons. The most tonally diverse of the three parts, Karbala is performed by glass marionettes that seem even more fragile than the clay figures in Cairo. This last installment looks at the second and third Crusades, concluding with the massacre of Constantinople in 1204. In the final scene several onlookers plead with God to help the Crusaders triumph over their enemies. This chilling moment encapsulates Shawky's entire project, showing how religion can generate calls for violence and how this perversion of religion has led directly to the suffering of countless people. After three and a half hours and several centuries, such massacres feel like a constant in human history.  v

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