Dec 15, 2016 – Mar 04, 2017
The silent American Film “Nanook of the North” (1922), directed by Robert Flaherty, is considered to be the first feature-length documentary film. Flaherty followed “Nanook”, an Inuit living in the Arctic Circle, and documented his daily life while hunting, fishing and building his Igloo. The exotic film was seen as groundbreaking at the time of its release while also enjoying tremendous box-office success. However, its documentary achievements were questioned over time, as it was later discovered that Nanook’s real name was actually Allakariallak, and that the woman appearing by his side in the film was never his wife.
Like “Nanook”, Guy Ben Ner’s new film “Escape Artists” revolves around people in a situation far removed from that of its viewers, while constructing its theme around questions similar to those raised by “Nanook”. The film features clips from weekly film classes taught by Ben Ner to groups from the “Holot” detention facility, which currently holds about 3000 African asylum seekers. These were taken over the course of two and a half years, a period during which some of the participants were released from the facility. “Holot” prohibits its detainees from filming inside the facility as well as holding classes within its perimeters, thereby forcing the classes to take place in various abandoned sites and the students to film their work using cellular phones only.
The film interlaces footage from the class with historic film references which are used by Ben Ner to illustrate several cinematic principles. These are scenes from cinematic masterpieces which demonstrate classic editing techniques or tricks, including clips from “Nanook”, Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blowup” (1966), “The Invisible Man” (1933), directed by James Whale, and Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle” (1958). Other segments, created by the students themselves, are interwoven among these famous scenes, and make use of basic filmmaking exercises to chronicle the students’ daily lives in “Holot”.
“Escape Artists” is not the first of Ben Ner’s films to deal with the artistic mechanism and specifically with the art of film. His works provoke both an enchantment with simple yet effective cinematic “stunts” and an understanding of the deception inherent to filmmaking (and to art in general). Still, “Escape Artists” manages to further develop Ben Ner’s discussion of the gap between artistic fiction and absurd reality. Previously using the medium and its history as a filter to his personal experiences, creating pseudo-documentaries questioning documentation itself, Ben Ner’s work now seems to make the relationship between text and subtext more elusive. The use of phone cameras emphasizes Ben Ner’s tendency towards doco-aesthetics, while the presence of a didactic line of class exercises makes it clear that deception is generated by the documentary form itself. This has already been established before, yet becomes ever-most apparent when dealing with a group of African refugees held in a detention facility – a subject that brings to mind sensitive documentary films. For his portrayal of the harsh reality in “Holot”, Ben Ner chooses to stick to his longtime practice of “cut and paste” aesthetics, filled with humor and intertextual references. While this supposedly shifts attention away from the subject, it in fact utilizes the inner-artistic discussion to give concrete form to a subject wholly outside the artist’s personal world.