Nelly Ben Hayoun on activism and education

The filmmaker, educator and designer talks to CR about her latest project – a feature-length film that explores activism in an era of Brexit, Trump and social media  

Nelly Ben Hayoun’s previous films have seen her assemble a space orchestra with a team of NASA scientists and explore what would happen if an asteroid was on course for earth. In her latest, I am (not) a Monster, she talks to a diverse group of thinkers, artists and politicians – from Noam Chomsky to the Lord Mayor of Sheffield and Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova – in an attempt to unpick the mechanics of activism.

Ben Hayoun says the film was inspired by her experience of running University of the Underground. The experience design course – founded in partnership with the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam – offers a radical alternative to traditional postgraduate programmes. There are no tuition fees and the course is a registered charity which receives half its funding from government grants and half from individuals and corporations.  

Speaking to CR when it launched, Ben Hayoun said she wanted to create an educational model that could be replicated in other parts of the world to support unconventional thinking and challenge the status quo. Over the past two years, she has been working with students to explore how experience design and art forms from music to theatre can be used to enact change within institutions, and students are set to graduate in June.

Through her work on the course, Ben Hayoun said she found herself pondering what it means to be a radical thinker and how we can challenge existing power structures. I am (not) a Monster is the result of a trip around the world to uncover answers to some of the questions raised by her students.

“I found that it was really difficult for me to try and explain to my students the importance of the action of thinking,” she tells CR. “I would tell them, ‘you need to design an experience that will support the action of thinking inside social institutions’, and they were like, ‘but what does that mean? What does it mean to think? And what it knowledge?’ These were really fundamental questions and I found myself as an educator not being able to answer them, so I decided to take it on the road.”