Epic is the word for Wael Shawky’s brilliant video trilogy Cabaret Crusades (2010–15). It is narrated in Arabic with English subtitles and has a running time of three-plus remarkably fast-paced hours. It is as sweeping as any Hollywood spectacular, complete with rich period costumes, clever scenography, and a pulsing, propelling musical score. But it is smarter and more politically complicated—with no heroes. The saga of the Crusades, it begins in the eleventh century and is told from a non-Western point of view (based on Lebanese historian Amin Maalouf’s book The Crusades through Arab Eyes); in it, Christians and Muslims are equally condemned for unspeakable barbarity and treachery to friend and foe alike. Broken alliances abound; fathers murder wives, children, and vice versa; entire cities are torched; and religion is just another word for power grabs and more killings. The subject couldn’t be more topical. As the cities in the path of destruction pass by on the screen—Mosul, Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Jerusalem, and more—it reads like the morning’s headlines.
It seems so real that it’s almost unbearable—all the more astonishing since the actors and animals are marionettes. Installed in two long vitrines they are a worthy exhibition in themselves. Everyone who can do so should see it.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 96.