“I know that Creation is a Great Wheel that cannot move without crushing someone!”

La Roue (1923)

“If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too… no matter how many movies, even very good ones, go on being made. If cinema can be resurrected, it will only be through the birth of a new kind of cine-love.” 

Susan Sontag (1995)

At the sunset of the 20th century, there was, as there remains today, widespread pessimism about the future of cinema – a sense that its pinnacle exists in a rapidly receding past. Cinema itself has always represented death: it entraps what can never be again, the moment it has passed. Anyone who has tried to reshoot a part of a scene months after the original shoot knows from painful experience how fragile every slice of reality is, how full it is of unrepeatable details. The love of cinema is a love of resurrection, a joy in watching these unrepeatable things be born again, a year, a decade, or a century later. And as we get further from the cinema’s 19th century nativity, a new kind of cine-love is rising… the immersion in its resurrected history thanks to 21st century digital preservation techniques.

The last decade in particular has been something of a golden age for restorations, much of that owing to the legacy of Il Cinema Ritrovato, an annual festival in Bologna dedicated to world premiere screenings of newly-restored works. Founded in 1986, each year, the festival presents the results of their painstaking labour – in partnership with film archives from all over the world – locating, reassembling and digitally reviving films that, for any number of reasons, including but not limited to censorship or the misplacement of print materials, were not previously accessible to the public in acceptable quality, if at all. The exploding popularity of Il Cinema Ritrovato has lead to a greater emphasis within many film festivals on local premieres of these revived works, bringing with it exciting opportunities for the re-evaluation of the past. At NYFF, this program is called, fittingly, Revivals, and it can be relied on to provide a superb tasting menu of iconoclastic cinema from the margins of the world’s – and the 20th century’s – most exciting cultural, aesthetic and political movements, as filtered through the minds of some of its most visionary artists and thinkers.

From a spread of 11 features, spanning 1923-1993, this year’s highlights include a marvellous restoration of Man Ray’s 1920s experimental surrealist shorts, set to a score by Jim Jarmusch and Carter Logan’s ambient duo Sqürl; Horace Ové’s Pressure (1974), a pulsating, politically-charged snapshot of Caribbean migrant communities in 1970s London (which is also the first British feature film made by a black director); Abel Gance’s fecund French melodrama La Roue (The Wheel, 1923); Manoel de Oliveira’s Abraham’s Valley, a labyrinthine reflection on bourgeois desire in Portugal; maverick French sculptor, painter and filmmaker Niki de Saint Phalle’s dark feminist fairytale A Dream Longer Than the Night (1976); and underappreciated Egyptian auteur Tewfik Saleh’s (eerily timely) allegory about Palestinian refugees, Al-Makhdu’un (The Dupes, 1972). In a generally strong program, what makes these films highlights is the way in which they put their formal choices in dialogue with their historical moment in a restless and critical way. In other words, the way in which they are modern.

Each time Gance cuts to an intertitle in The Wheel, the viewer can’t miss the strange sketch of a supine figure strapped to a wooden torture wheel as he is rotated by another man forward (or backwards) onto metal spikes. The scene is a persistent accompaniment to the on-screen text; text which, over the course of its seven-hour length, is vital in inching the film’s ponderous narrative carriage forward. And yet, the sketch also serves as a blunt reminder that perceptions of progress are often an illusion of perspective. The film’s subheading, ‘A Tragedy for Modern Times’, is another signal of Gance’s intention to telescope mythic past and industrial present, while quotations from a chorus of European literary heavyweights, including Hugo, Baudelaire, Zola, Claudel, Kipling, D’Annunzio and Sophocles, “[irradiate] their power through the images that gleam around them”1 as Gance himself explained. We get another clue to the film’s grandiose allegorical ambition with the name of the protagonist, Sisif – a reference to the Ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, doomed by Hades to repeat his grinding task for eternity as punishment for attempting to cheat death.

Sisif in La Roue

In 2023, Sisif, played by Séverin-Mars, makes for an interesting protagonist, not least of all because his appearance at New York’s Lincoln Centre is proof he has cheated death, but also because the film that immortalises him, by virtue of its epic scale, its obsessive focus on death and rebirth, and the miraculous recovery of its long-missing pieces, acts as something of a lodestar for the resurrectionary spirit of the Revivals program as a whole. Indeed, there are so many entry and exit points with La Roue, in terms of its references to the artistic currents of the 19th century that were crucial in shaping cinema’s early development, as well as its own role as a fountainhead of cinematic modernism, it’s hard to know where to begin.

La Roue presents the story of Sisif, a gifted railway engineer whose life changes after he pulls an orphaned baby, Norma, from the wreckage of a train-crash. Impulsively destroying the evidence of her mother’s death in the same incident, he surreptitiously adopts Norma as a sister for his young son, Elie, who he is raising as a single father. Jumping forward 15 years – as Norma has grown into a jolly teenager, so too has Sisif’s life inexplicably gone off the rails; he now spends his days getting blackout drunk at the local worker’s bar, where the mention of Norma is enough to unleash sweaty, soot-stained fury upon her growing list of admirers. There are hints, too, that Sisif’s own son, a sensitive violin-maker, might be among them; though the truth of Norma’s adoption was kept from him, he shares an unusually tactile and affectionate bond with his “sister”. What some could only have suspected until now is finally revealed when Sisif makes the error of divulging to his cunning, exploitative boss, Hersan, that he is in love with his adopted daughter, and that it is driving him insane.

After this reveal, close to two hours in, the tragedy settles into a heavy, Oedipal rhythm. Motifs of wheels and circles proliferate. Frequently we are looking at characters through a thick vignette that suggests both voyeurism and constriction. The narrative beats are sparse, but the contours of each character’s emotional experience are rendered in exquisite visual detail. Gance’s compositions of backlit steam trains and lonely mountains are frequently jaw-dropping, but most marvellous of all is the film’s breadth of formal origination. La Roue was radical for its liberation of the camera as an expressive instrument, taking it out of the studio and fixing it to trains to create shots of spellbinding kinetic power that were completely new to cinema. Some of the images that have stayed with me longest are its virtuosic, associative superimpositions; trains appear in hands, Norma’s face in train-engine smoke, violins and snowy cliffs.

In the year he took to edit this film, he is known to have visited D. W. Griffith, the American who brought cross-cutting and parallel editing to the cinematic lexicon in The Birth of a Nation (1915). In La Roue, Gance leveraged these techniques to new heights of visual dynamism and psychological potency, with sequences of rapid cutting fostering a synergy between Sisif’s suicidal abandon, carnal cravings and the perilous power of industrial machinery. This metaphoric loop is closed when, following Norma’s departure with Hersan, Sisif names his engine ‘Norma II’, caressing and purring to it in a way he never could its namesake. In one of the film’s most delirious moments, the steam engine actually speaks back. It’s a scene that would fit comfortably in one of the more ludic subplots of Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights (2015), while also recalling the famous ending of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012). But just as the engine’s personification is complete, Sisif steers a speeding ‘Norma’ against a concrete wall in another hare-brained attempt to end his suffering.

Norma II speaks to Sisif in La Roue

Gance’s uncanny blend of formal experimentation and literary romanticism drew much criticism from his avant-garde contemporaries in France; he was close but not close enough to their vision of the ideal modernist visionary, and by the coming of sound Gance had been all but discarded. However, in The Parade’s Gone By…, Kevin Brownlow’s history of silent cinema, a statement from Gance is related in which three of the godheads of Soviet cinema – Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Alexander Dovzhenko – paid Gance a visit on a trip to Paris in the early 1930s to thank him for teaching them the art of cinema, which they apparently learned studying La Roue a decade earlier at the Moscow Academy.2 We’ll never know how much of that is true, but the similarities between La Roue and the early Soviet films such as Strike! (1925) are plain to see, particularly in terms of rapid montage and building of interlinked visual and emotional crescendos. Gance’s incurably devious capitalist figure, Hersan, is also something of a blueprint for the countless figures that grasp and connive their way through Soviet film history. But more than simply technique or subject matter, the works by these Soviet masters inherit from Gance a thematic and conceptual monumentality—an ambition to bring individual, social, and philosophical realities into epic formal alignment. By its denouement in a wintry cabin in the Alps, far from the raging pistons of industrial capitalism and against a transcendental backdrop of the circular folk dance traditions of the local villages, La Roue reveals its deeply romantic ideological vision.

La Roue

Both Gance and his Soviet counterparts have something else in common that’s characteristic of European modernism more broadly – a belief in the universality of their own epistemological precepts, and a tendency, buoyed consciously or unconsciously by an attitude of racial supremacy (itself borne of Europe’s rapacious colonial domination of much of the world), to inflate locally contingent bodies of knowledge into timeless axioms for all human beings. Perhaps the most frequently cited author in Gance’s intertitles is Rudyard Kipling, the poet and novelist hailed by Henry James as “the most complete man of genius…that I have ever known”,3 but whose literary achievements are overshadowed by the racism infamously expressed in his poem The White Man’s Burden (1899). We get a sample of this attitude in La Roue through the character Kalatarikarascopoulos, a cheap stereotype of a Greek man who is so obsessed with precious stones he’s basically non-verbal. His main function in the story is as the object of derisive humour – ludicrously blind to his wife’s infidelity while she pursues the more debonair and desirable Hersan. As sociologist and humanist Aníbal Quijano observed, “only European culture is rational, it can contain ‘subjects’ – the rest are not rational, they cannot be or harbour ‘subjects’.”4 But in recent years, Revivals has presented works that bring a vivid three-dimensionality to the subaltern experience that is consistently absent from Western media. Films such as Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga (1972) in 2021, and Glauber Rocha’s Deus e o Diablo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil, 1964) in 2022 reveal the deceit and self-interest lurking behind Western attitudes of cultural and moral superiority. This year, no film encapsulates that spirit better than The Dupes.

Alternatively titled The Deceived, The Dupes is the masterpiece of Egyptian filmmaker Tewfik Saleh, whose reputation in the Arab world as one of its greatest auteurs stands in contrast to his virtual invisibility in Anglophone film writing beyond a handful of academic publications. Though his films are difficult to find with English subtitles, what is available reveals a filmmaker of unique historical consciousness, whose oeuvre spills over with complex, contradictory individuals who find themselves exposed to the prevailing cultural, moral and political winds. Saleh himself was no stranger to historical weather events. After pursuing cinema in Alexandria against his father’s wishes he went to Paris to complete his studies, returning just after the 1952 Egyptian Revolution that overthrew the monarchy and installed Pan-Arab socialist icon Gamal Abdel Nasser. Though his first film, Darb al-Mahabil (Fool’s Alley, 1955) was made within a few years of the debut of his much more widely recognised and celebrated countryman Youssef Chahine, and though he, like Chahine, was similarly inspired by Italian neorealism’s raw approach to social issues and tendency toward internal moral critique, Saleh was unable to achieve the same consistency of output. He had no interest in manufacturing the glib melodramas that dominated the Egyptian box office in that period, but his work was morally uncompromising enough to also be viewed with suspicion by the Egyptian government. As a result, Saleh struggled for both private and public finance, and his films, once completed, were typically censored. After difficulties with the release of Yaumiyat Na’ib Fi-l-Aryaf (Diary of a Country Prosecutor, 1968), a withering critique of low-level government corruption, Saleh travelled to Syria to pursue his next project – an adaptation of a short story about three Palestinian refugees titled The Men in the Sun (1962) by revolutionary Palestinian Marxist, politician, novelist and poet Ghassan Kanafani. Kanafani would be assassinated along with his 17-year-old niece by the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, within months of the film’s release.

The Dupes tells the story of three different Palestinian refugees a decade on from the ethnic cleansing of their homelands by European and US-armed Zionist militias in 1948. For Palestinian people, this event is known as the Nakba, ‘the catastrophe’, in which tens of thousands of people were killed, and three quarters of a million expelled so that their villages could be rebuilt as Jewish-only settlements. Still languishing in crisis accommodation in Iraq, it is rumoured that some modest economic gains are to be found over the border in oil-rich Kuwait. But for stateless refugees that means paying a smuggler and, for the final leg, striking out into the scorching desert on foot. The first image we see is of the latter: a long shot of Abou Keïss (Mohamed Kheir-Halouani), the eldest of the three, trudging under the protection of a keffiyeh through a sandy abyss of thermal radiation – each step moving him closer towards a human skeleton in the foreground. In retrospect, it’s not clear whether this is a memory of a previous attempt to escape Iraq, or indeed a memory of the Nakba itself. But it could just as well be a premonition, as the interminable cycle of forced relocations and rootlessness is a key theme of the film, one that finds expression in its formal strategies as much as in the diegesis.

Assad, Marwan and Abou Keïss in The Dupes

Abou Keïss, a self-described peasant, is over 60 but his children are both under ten. From the beginning, we are given fragmentary access to his memories: an elliptical montage of olive harvests, river barges, bombed olive groves, unsuccessful resistance, the smell of fertile soil. These moments are intercut with an affecting sequence of documentary material – UN resolutions, Western press conferences, Arab leaders’ summits – all over an inner monologue that evokes the bitterness and despair of one who has been betrayed by people who’ll never know of his existence. Back in the present, Abou Keïss is taunted by another older character for his lack of proactiveness, and this shaming leads to a conversation with a slimy people smuggler. It’s during this shot/reverse shot negotiation over prices that we are first introduced to one of the film’s most interesting formal strategies. Saleh cuts from Abou Keïss to a single shot of the smuggler but, when he returns, a new character, Assad (Bassan Lofti Abou-Ghazala, a Palestinian refugee) is in his place – though the conversation continues seamlessly. By the same mode of transition, we meet the third refugee, Marwan, (Saleh Kholoki) a 16-year-old with aspirations to become a doctor, but who is compelled to abandon school and search for work to support his mother and siblings. This becomes necessary because his older brother, himself sent away to work years earlier, stopped sending cash after a marriage he has revealed only to Marwan. The Dupes, and Saleh’s cinema in general, is filled with these sorts of quasi-betrayals. Everyone has their reasons, and none more so than the final character we meet, Abu Al Khaizran (Abdul Rahman Al Rashi), another opportunistic people-smuggler, but this time a fellow Palestinian – a cynical, disillusioned veteran who was left sterile after an explosion from an Israeli missile in 1948.

The imbrication of present and past, and of one character’s lived experience with another’s, is also a feature of Kanafani’s original text. As a reader and viewer, we’ve got to be active in tracking when the point-of-view changes; this daisy-chaining of perspective happens without any warning, and with almost hallucinogenic frequency as the film picks up momentum. While on the one hand it’s a beautiful acceleration of cinema’s tendency to drift between individual subjectivities, it also has a political function, in that it sharpens our sense of the collective nature of the trauma experienced in the Nakba, without forgoing any sense of the texture of individual experiences within that.

The Dupes

Abu Al Khaizran’s fishy offer for Abou Keïss, Assad and Marwan involves getting inside the steel water tank on the back of his vehicle while they cross a Kuwaiti border checkpoint in searing desert heat. Unable to afford the previous smuggler, they agree to take the risk, and from here the film shifts gears. Time and space have, until now, veered in accordance with the synaptic rhythms of individual subjectivities, but as the truck gets closer to the border, the phenomenological horizon narrows to the width of the bumpy road and the lethal seconds it takes Khaizran to clear the checkpoints. Saleh’s black and white images – which, after the restoration, look extraordinary – convey an uncanny sensation of extreme desert heat. This unexpected formal shift late in the film, towards something of a thriller, makes visceral the existential binary of the outcast – the psychological injury caused by that which is lost, and the physical injury of its intermittent repercussions. The Dupes is a film that vibrates with anger and moral intelligence. Saleh critiques the temptation to abandon the collective struggle for Palestinian liberation as a dead end, without losing any empathy for the circumstances that would lead a person to do so. Fifty-one years later the film’s call to recognise the victims of the Nakba as human beings worthy of consideration feels more urgent than ever.

In a 1998 discussion on CUNY TV, an educational television station in New York, then program director of Film at Lincoln Center, Richard Peña, remarked in a discussion following the US television premiere of The Dupes that, “One can almost think of the film, in a somewhat contradictory way, as classically modernist. It’s very much a modernist text.” This idea of The Dupes being somehow in tension between classicism and modernity echoes the early critical commentary around La Roue, and to my mind it cuts to the heart of both films’ appeal, 50 and 100 years on, respectively – their heterogeneity, their copiousness, their resistance to aesthetic classification. Gance’s seemingly conflicted rejection of modernity (his willingness to use its methods, in order to critique its trajectory), wasn’t “pure” enough for the avant-garde of his day, and in that sense it’s an interesting forerunner to the kind of contaminated cinema that Pier Paolo Pasolini would champion in his own tussles with the European avant-garde in the 1960s and ’70s. Likewise, there is an electricity generated in the friction of a Syrian film about Palestinian refugees manipulating the mannerisms of modernity to criticise the violent logic that underpins it. As Argentinian decolonial theorist Walter Mignolo has pointed to, this apparent contradiction in Western modernity – its self-identification with a set of universal moral principles that give its domination over the rest of the world a veneer of moral credibility, and its contentment to apply those principles selectivity in order to maintain its position of domination – is not actually a contradiction at all; they are two sides of the same modernist coin.

La Roue

New York Film Festival
29 September – 15 October


  1. Cuff, Paul (2018) ‘Words Radiating Images: Visualizing Text in Abel Gance’s La Roue’ Literature/Film Quarterly Vol. 46, No. 3, 2018, Salisbury University
  2. Brownlow, Kevin (1976) The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press, p. 541
  3. Rutherford, Andrew (1987). General Preface to the Editions of Rudyard Kipling, in “Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies”, by Rudyard Kipling. Oxford University Press
  4. Quijano, Aníbal (2007) ‘Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality’, Cultural Studies, 21: 2, p. 174

About The Author

James Vaughan is a writer and director based in Sydney. His debut feature, Friends and Strangers, premiered in IFFR's Tiger Competition and was named in Sight and Sound's annual critics poll as one of the 50 best films of 2021.

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