An Israeli Artist Gives Detained Asylum Seekers a Cinematic Escape Hatch

A work of video art shot at the Holot detention facility transcends the Tel Aviv, Berlin or New York bubble, looking instead at asylum seekers oppressed by Israeli policy.

Still from 'Escape Artists,' 2016.
Liat Elbing

They pass by on the streets, utterly transparent to the citydwellers. In some cases one of them disappears for a time and then reappears, only to vanish again, possibly for good. Guy Ben-Ner counts them, calls them by name, approaches them and enriches their lives, as they do his life and art. They are his escape artists. Ben-Ner (born 1969) is an Israeli video artist who has become a master of the medium, his successes exceeding local borders. Each of his works is a fusion of wisdom and humor, rich imagination and deep understanding of language as such.

“Stealing Beauty” (2007) is a masterful video in which Ben-Ner and his family conduct their daily lives in Ikea showrooms in various countries, and without the chain’s permission. In it, he examined the intimate family cell, and relations between father and offspring, through the prism of the language of legend, conserving and converting it amid a journey into the outer world. That video was a critique, intelligent and funny to the point of tears, about the way in which the language of temptations in the consumer world puts our brains to sleep.

In “Escape Artists,” a video currently showing at Sommer Contemporary Art, a Tel Aviv gallery, Ben-Ner adds to these elements a measure of human compassion. He transcends the Tel Aviv, Berlin or New York bubble and finds himself in the Holot detention facility in the Negev desert, where some 3,000 asylum seekers from Africa are incarcerated. There, Ben-Ner gave weekly theoretical and practical classes in the history of the cinema, which were held in abandoned structures outside the facility. (The gallery’s website notes that “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.”) For the inmates, this opened an escape hatch to the imagination and to the human cinematic common denominator.

The 38-minute video is an amalgam of two and a half years of artistic collaboration. Editing of genius interweaves the weekly classes with key excerpts from the history of the language of the cinema and “homework” done by the inmate students. The result is a unified work, fraught with tension between continuity and truncation, false and true, inner and outer.

Magic and fraud

They escaped from their native lands, crossed countries and borders, were abandoned to the abuse of smugglers. And here their escape continues, to which Ben-Ner adds another escape that emanates from love of humanity and art. The opening shot is a true wonder. By an act of magic, the inmate Tadros is sent to Canada. Aman lifts his arm toward him and by an editing trick of cutting and splicing, Tadros disappears and the voice of the omniscient narrator (Ben-Ner) asks and answers: “Where is Tadros? He’s in Canada?!” And they all respond like children, “In Canada.”

Canada is represented by Nanook, the noble savage from the North, in the first silent documentary screened for the facility’s inmates. Ben-Ner draws their attention to the silent shot in which the Eskimo is ostensibly flabbergasted when the director plays him music from a gramophone. Nanook tastes the record with his mouth and looks into the camera as he does so, at the instructions of the director, who wanted to create an effect of primitivism. Toward the end of the video, Ben-Ner and his students will create from scratch a soundtrack for the silent image. Thus Ben-Ner returns them, and us, to the wonder of the genesis of the language of cinema – but also to the act of fraud that underlies the magic, though without the wonder losing any of its joy.

Subsequently in the video, prisoners play a game of roles involving a dialogue in which one is a detainee requesting special leave for a family wedding in Tel Aviv and the other a warder who sticks to the dry letter of the law. The game allows Ben-Ner to exemplify the shifting angles of photography that create the cinematic dialogue. In another segment, the artist holds a dialogue with an inmate during a car trip, with the camera cutting back and forth from one to the other. In the Ben-Ner shots, the car goes forward, in the inmate shots, it goes backward. In fact, they are in the same place, but in different times and different existences.

One of the finest and most moving shots shows Ben-Ner filming them from outside, from behind the fences, while they play tennis without rackets or a ball, between tin shacks that glitter in the sun. Then the game ends and one of the players approaches the fence and looks from afar at Ben-Ner and us. At the same time, an unseen ball flies over the fence and lands in the open desert terrain – as we learn from watching Ben-Ner’s head following the “ball” (he is photographed by another cameraman, unseen). Thus the asylum seekers, Ben-Ner and us – we all collaborate in a marvelous, shared allegory of life and art.

“Escape Artists” by Guy Ben-Ner, Sommer Contemporary Art, 13 Rothschild Blvd., Tel Aviv, (03) 516-6400; Fri 10.00-14.00, Sat 11.00-13.00, Mon-Thurs 10.00-18.00; until March 4