unreel

Life is lived in the gap between the real and the unreal. Which is the gap between the unreel and the reel. The film of life unreels from the future – is it predetermined? how can you actually possibly know? – and flicks past your eyes, and by the time it is fully real for you, it is fully reeled up, spooled on the reel of experience. You know it has happened because it is already gone and stored; your eyes are glued to the flickering of the present, but your awareness is always a moment behind, and working with what has been spooled in memory.

Today at the Art Gallery of Ontario I watched a 20-minute film, made in 2011 by Francis Alÿs, called Reel-Unreel. In it, two boys run through Kabul. One rolls a red film reel along the street as he runs, unreeling film from it as he goes. The other one follows him at variable distance, never catching up, rolling a blue film reel and winding the same film back up on it as he goes. Through the dusty and muddy streets and walks and the crowded market, over bridges and around corners and up a hillside road they run, the one in front unreeling, the film dragging in dust and wrapping around things and under feet and tires, the one coming behind reeling it back up in whatever condition it is in.

The film had some clear and important political points about Afghanistan to make. But for me it was life. The unreeled film was meant to be seen, but it was not projected for an audience. Its countless frames, known only to itself, were muddied and scratched and twisted and at risk of being broken. Coming off the reel, all was perfect and pristine; going back on, nothing was quite as it was intended, and who in the end had seen it? The reality of life is the unreel, still not grasped but also not seen, and when it is finally the reel, it is too late and all that it has been – with all its mutations and wounds – is wound up and immutable.

What is a reel? A reel is a wheel with something real wound around it. This sense comes right from the Germanic origins of the word. Life is a wheel, a wheel of fortune, but it is a wheel with the thread of fate spooled on it – or the film of the moments of existence in infinite succession of frames.

And what is the reel? What is the unreel? Though we become enured to it, we are not neutral; in our neural circuitry we seek renewal, we seek to learn, but in order to realize that, we must subject the unreel to the damage and distortions of reality, so that when it becomes reel it can truly bear the marks of what we have been through.

And in the end? In the end of Reel-Unreel the film passes through a garbage-heap flame and is burnt so that it breaks, but the boy with the red reel continues unreeling oblivious as the boy with the blue reel chases on farther behind; the red reel escapes and goes off the road and down the mountainside cliff back into the busy tawny dusty town. The boy with the blue reel runs up, looks where it has gone, stunned for a moment. And then he smiles and, with a spin, finishes reeling up the film he has.

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