Nelly Ben Hayoun has a Hannah Arendt fixation. The stated point of the charismatic designer/director’s new documentary is to use Arendt’s philosophy as a springboard to find “the origin of knowledge”. If this mission statement sounds deliberately free of meaning, it is, but the problem with Ben Hayoun’s film is that its meaninglessness more often feels like a failure than a deliberate act.
Despite Ben Hayoun’s veneration of Arendt, this is hardly a hagiography. Engagement with Arendt’s work is surface-level only, reducing dense texts to Tumblr-ready aphorisms. Ben Hayoun seems to revere Arendt more as an aesthetic object than as an actor in history. She dresses up in Arendt costumes, makes an Arendt puppet, sits at Arendt’s desk and repeatedly speaks in the persona of “Hannah Arendt” but barely makes a dent in anything Arendt said or did.
Ben Hayoun repeatedly cuts away from potentially interesting conversations to focus on her holiday videos/“search for the origin of knowledge”. Interviewees include Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (of Pussy Riot) and Noam Chomsky (not of Pussy Riot), but screentime must be made for Ban Hayoun’s visit to a kabuki theatre, or a cloth-marbling workshop, so out they go.
In an illustrative moment, Ben Hayoun asks Tolokonnikova whether she should present Chomsky with her Arendt puppet, or a puppet of Tolokonnikova herself. Tolokonnikova says the humble thing would be to pick Arendt, but chooses her own likeness, saying she wants to be a “selfish activist”. Ultimately, nothing comes of Chomsky meeting puppet-Tolokonnikova. Neither choice was any kind of activism, and neither is this film.
Like Tolokonnikova and Pussy Riot, Ben Hayoun’s self-described activism is performance-based. Unlike Pussy Riot, or indeed Arendt, Ben Hayoun’s performance risks nothing because she is saying nothing. Meaninglessness has inspired some fine art, but it is merely self-indulgent in documentary form.
CAST: Nelly Ben Hayoun, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Magid Magid, Noam Chomsky
DIRECTOR: Nelly Ben Hayoun
WRITER: Nelly Ben Hayoun
SYNOPSIS: Using the philosopher Hannah Arendt as her starting point, designer Nelly Ben Hayoun travels the world seeking the source of the origin of knowledge.