Could the fantasy world of a child provide a secret passage into the past? This question is the starting-point of Sarah Vanagt’s research on the “historical imagination” of children. How do children deal with the past, or rather, how do they shape it in their imagination? This issue was initiated in the video Little Figures (2003), in which Vanagt, who studied history at the universities of Antwerp, Sussex and Groningen, and film at the National Film and Television School (UK), had children of immigrants carry out an imaginary conversation between three historical figures, immortalized as statues in Brussels. This resulted in a blend of personal experiences, imagined story twists and connections, as well as shreds of previously overheard information. Precisely this twilight zone between knowing and not-knowing is fascinating – when children fill the gaps in their knowledge and understanding with building bricks from their own fantasy world.

The same curiosity instigated the documentary Begin Began Begun (2005), which situates itself in the borderline between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A violent conflict has been going on there for over 10 years. Sarah Vanagt went on the lookout for the miniature worlds children set up while they are playing – worlds in which time is stretched out and cut short on their own discretion, where objects are brought to life, where the boundaries between reality and imagination, life and death, order and chaos fade away. The children seem to be playing with pieces from the past, as it were.

The installation Les Mouchoirs de Kabila (2005) begins where Begin Began Begun ends: with images of refugee children in Goma, playing amongst the lava fragments which disrupted the city. From found material they build up a miniature city. Old, used phone cards suddenly turn into TV-screens, in a sardine tin which was converted into a living room; a piece of metal is bent to become a wheelchair. Cities rise and fall at each shower of rain. Everything is lava, lava is everything: arms, building bricks, diamonds. The ground underneath their petrified feet, the air for their asthmatic lungs. The cause for their illness, a source of income. In order to make money the children sort the pieces of lava, which is subsequently processed as cement, or they sell paper handkerchiefs.

While Begin Began Begun is mostly situated at the Rwandese side of the border, the image material for the installation was filmed for the most part at the Congolese side of the border. Whereas the game of the Rwandese children was part of the tenth anniversary of the genocide, the game of the children in Goma mainly reflects the current chaos, the corruption and the election fever in Eastern Congo. Their game becomes a barometer for the political climate in the area. Death takes up a central position: dolls are buried between lava fragments, the dead fall and rise again. The children seem to turn into wandering links between the living and the dead, as larvae creeping from underneath the vast, dark lava surface in order to report from another world, the world underneath the ruins. As if they were playing knucklebones with the spines of millions of dead people in packed graves.

The work of Sarah Vanagt offers glimpses of that “in-between space”, as an image of a society in which the surreal and the imaginary keep merging more and more, where the invisible might even have pushed aside the visible. The tiny world of fairytale is used as a prism to watch at the ‘greater world’. The trajectory the dolls cover in their cars – which is also the trip the spectator makes through the imaginary world of the children – is nothing more than a detour to get to reality.