Work / Film

Dr Nelly Ben Hayoun’s latest film explores the importance of pluralist thinking

Known as the “Willy Wonka” of design studios, Nelly Ben Hayoun Studios, founded by the new-age Willy Wonka herself, is getting ready to launch her new feature-length documentary I Am (not) A Monster. The film advocates some of Nelly’s core beliefs around the right to education and pluralist thinking. She tells It’s Nice That how, “for me, education should be free and it should make our own economic system to maintain it. Education should exist beyond nation states as a transnational entity, independent from governmental politics. And thirdly, schools have to maintain plurality both in their approach but also in leadership.”

Influenced by the American-Jewish philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, Nelly cites how her works are “incredibly relevant” today. Known for coining the term “the banality of evil”, Hannah’s writings remind us of the dangers of authoritarian regimes; as seen in the Second World War as well as in today where ’temptations for authoritarian regimes are are making a revival, with the election of Trump and Bolsonaro in Brasil to cite a few.”

“As a woman filmmaker brought up in a family of immigrants,” says Nelly, “the film expresses my strongest belief that nation-states have to be questioned as a format and that to consider a transnational form of education is more urgent and necessary than ever.” When Nelly isn’t directing films, she runs a tuition-free postgraduate university — the University of the Underground — in Amsterdam and London in the basement of the nightclubs DeMarktkantine and Village Underground respectively. With these programmes, Nelly and her colleagues teach students “how to use a plurality of disciplines and thoughts” through film, music, design, politics, theatre and linguistics. “My students are part of the reason why I started the film,” explains Nelly. “I felt that I needed to build a federation of partners around our educative structure, to demonstrate the importance of the act of thinking and the need for a plurality of thoughts and transnational education.”

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I Am (not) A Monster

Using her experience as a “designer of experiences” where she’s worked with the likes of NASA and the United Nations, as well as drawing on her own training in textile design and kimono making in Japan, Nelly’s film resultantly explores the diversity of education and the means by which knowledge exists. The film features political activist legend Noam Chomsky, Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, several of Hannah Arendt’s students, robot maker Hiroshi Ishiguro as well as several other Japanse national treasures. From the likes of Bunraku puppeteer Kanjuro Kiritake II, to the kimono master Takayuki Takahashi and Noh Theatre master Hisa Uzawa, the film sees Nelly delving into the thoughts of a wealth of students, alternative schools, not to mention brilliant thinkers all-round.

I Am (not) A Monster is due for release in Autumn 2019, previewing at the BFI Southbank in collaboration with 4:3 Boiler Room. Not only is the film an in-depth exploration of Nelly’s fundamental beliefs, but the documentary also changed her views. “I used to think that I should never open my door or school to a Trump supporter or a pro-Brexiter, but this film changed my views on things completely.” It was Roger Berkowitz, the academic director of the Hannah Arendt Centre for Politics and Humanities that got Nelly to rethink her position on the matter.

“He talks about ‘the age of loneliness’ where we’re all so set with our views that we do not listen or want to talk with one another,” says Nelly. “By doing so, we only reinforce a single mindset, which is known to ideology and authoritarian regimes.” Roger also talks to Nelly about how a monster used to be defined as someone who “commits horrific acts”, but now, “Western societies are now turning a person who uses the wrong hashtags into a ‘monster’.”

As a teacher and a director of an academic institution, Nelly now feels it’s her “responsibility to support plurality and to allow [her] students to meet individuals with views that [she] may not agree with.” Despite the fact that she invites speakers that “engage with a thinking that [she] believes is ‘right’ or ‘ethically correct’”, Nelly asserts that the actual purpose of a school is “a platform for thinking”. She adds that “in that context, my personal beliefs should not apply. My students are able to formulate their own critical mind without me having to ‘censure’ their access to various and plural thoughts.”

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I Am (not) A Monster

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I Am (not) A Monster