Thursday, March 24, 2011

Guy Ben-Ner, Stealing Beauty, 2007

          Israeli video artist Guy Ben-Ner’s work explores the intimate dynamic of the family life, the individual and the culture of domesticity to pint to larger themes such as right to ownership, origins and law. Ben-Ner’s performance and video pieces often take place in the context of small sets that reflect an Ikea-like version of a perfect nuclear family’s home. He often, but not exclusively, uses his own children in his works.
            In his work, Stealing Beauty, a modern family experiences small trials and tribulations. The set is created in a museum or gallery space and a video team documents the performance. Gallery visitors are allowed to move in an out of the sets but the actors take no notice of the intruders.
           The script begins with a sitcom feel as cartoonish music introduces each new scene. Much of the performance is reminiscent of a 1950s sitcom. At one point in the film his wife catches their daughter coming home after midnight and she is grounded; the plot is predictable—easy to swallow. Not unexpected, the younger brother teases his sister for getting “busted” and the scene progresses.
The dramatic switch comes later in the evening when the mother begins to speak out her interior monologue. She wonders whether or not the father of her children will tell the kids what he does for a living. She wonders why he won’t talk to them. The dynamic between the mother and father is the archetypal miscommunication that we have seen for decades in a sitcom’s couple; their inability to share thoughts and feelings leads to inevitable trouble. We might look at this on the nuclear familial level but something in the script changes that makes us take note that there is more to this family small talk that has been perceived.
Soon after, Ben-Ner starts talking briefly about terrorism and the wife urges him to talk openly with their kids while she goes out shopping with her friend. The dialogue is forced, to the point of tangible awkwardness. A silly little song interrupts each scene indicating that another part of the narrative is about to start and calls attention to the viewer that we should pay attention.
When the mother leaves with a friend to go shopping the next morning, the father is forced to interact with his children alone. Immediately they begin firing questions about rights of property. Now it is obvious that this sitcom might be more than the audience had bargained for. As they talk about property rights, the issue of exclusion emerges. Ben-Ner says, “Private property creates borders, son…it liberates its rightful owners.” The boy asks how they got the house and Ben-Ner says he got it from another guy. This leads to a question about the right to own land and the avoided issue of the Israeli Palestinian conflict is finally confronted, though it is never explicitly named.
Later, the young girl reads from a book about hunter gathers. And she begs her father to explain the nature of land ownership. He responds with a confusing answer: “Don’t confuse profit with threat,” to which she asks, “Why do we have to have permission for everything?” Because, he says, “I am your father, I am big and you are small.” The conflict rises and tension builds, pointing even more to the conflict over land and rights of Israel and Palestine.
Ben-Ner attempts to explain inheritance to his young son. He says that land should belong to a family. Again, the issue of the right to own something comes up and brings in yet another larger issue—the rights of Israeli women. Over time the daughter gets her father to admit that their mother is his property, which he quickly excuses that particular ownership as an act of love. This clearly points to the stereotype that the West has placed on Middle Eastern men. The actors speak English with heavy accents and it is clear that this speech is intended for a Western audience and calls into question many of the assumptions that are held about Israel and the Middle East.
In the final scene the father says,“Sharing is primitive, it is for animals,” which is a response Western audiences might expect and scoff at if it were to come from a Middle Easter person talking about sharing the land of Israel and Palestine. The script continues on to explore the theme of slavery and private property. The father says, “Thieves are silent and we are not thieves. Objects talk but the law like a thief is silent.” These types of quotes beg the audience to consider preconceived notions about the conflict in the Middle East because it puts words and ideas in their heads, shaping the way they view these types of issues. The concept of using a sitcom-like setting encourages the theme of media-influenced thinking that pits Western society against the Middle East.
The video ends with the children speaking. They say, “A good movie is open ended like the future.” Such an ending invites a heated conversation from the audience, but they also call the audience to action—actions that might not be acceptable, but nonetheless, an action, rather than passivity. 

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