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SXSW Women Directors: Meet Nelly Ben Hayoun – ‘Disaster Playground’

SXSW Women Directors: Meet Nelly Ben Hayoun - 'Disaster Playground'

Award-winning director and designer of experiences Nelly Ben Hayoun is a critical explorer and a fearless and passionate provocateur. Wired Magazine awarded Nelly Ben Hayoun with an Innovation Fellowship for her work to date and its potential to make a “significant impact on the world.” Ben Hayoun’s first feature documentary, “The International Space Orchestra” (2013), tells the story of the incredible journey that Ben Hayoun took with the employees of NASA Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute in California in setting up the International Space Orchestra and the production of the space opera they made together. (Press materials)

Disaster Playground” will premiere at the 2015 SXSW festival on March 13. 

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

NBH: “Disaster Playground” investigates future outer-space catastrophes and the procedures to manage and assess the risks. The film follows the scientists planning the monitoring and deflection of hazardous Near Earth Objects and the real-life procedures in place in the event of an asteroid collision with the earth. Follow the chain of command that runs from the SETI Institute and NASA to the White House and United Nations and meet the people who are responsible from protecting us from a potentially devastating asteroid impact.

“Disaster Playground” is also built as a creative platform, with a narrative being told through various channels: there is a feature film, an exhibition, a concert, 13 programs on the design of emergency procedures, debates. I like to call these mega-projects!

W&H: What drew you to this story?

NBH: I got frustrated with films like “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact,” where the only answer to deal with a Near-Earth Object is basically Bruce Willis with a big drill.

I guess what really pushed me to do the project was an intense curiosity to meet all of the people involved in the decision-making process if an asteroid was discovered to be dangerous. Working on the project, I encountered all the previous history of Near-Earth Objects (NEO), the facts behind the disappearance of the dinosaurs, the Tunguska event and the effect of the Chelyabinsk meteor, and more recently the development of the NEO program at NASA and how it came to be built. Dr. David Morrison initially gave testimony to Congress in 1993 to appeal for the creation of the NEO program to better monitor the skies, as the threat was real.

I found all of the geopolitics behind the NEO program really fascinating, and I really wanted to meet the people behind the program, have the public meet them, and understand what is their role in the chain of command. It’s an “Armageddon” movie but played by the real people involved, and of course it’s much more different. There are components that are still being developed with the United Nations, and I guess that is what makes the film interesting, as it gives a state to where we are now, what are our plans for the future, and how can we build from what has happened before, like with Chelyabinsk and Tunguska.

I’m the Designer of Experiences at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, where we try and define if we are alone in the universe and where we also do a lot of astrobiology (life on other planets) work. I’m part of the Space Education and Outreach Committee at the International Astronautical Federation, and for me, this project is linked back to my other projects as well, which is trying to find extreme ways to engage the public with the craft and the human condition behind space exploration.

I’m looking at ways to engage the public with what the scientists are doing, getting the human component back into the picture, and making it more digestible for the public. I’m not just going to show numbers of success; I’m going to show the vulnerability of the mission or the difficulties in coming up with the correct decision. “Disaster Playground” is trying to get you, members of the public, in their shoes.

What would you do if you were Astronaut Rusty Schweickart and, in 2020, you were on the launch pad and you had to come up with an accelerated way to build a gravity tractor because we just found out you had to come up with a really quick decision? It’s not that easy. It’s not just about the data; it’s also what scientists think about the data, whether or not to pass it on the chain of command. It is a real responsibility.

Baudrillard’s critical text in his book “America” is also framing the film, and it allows space for reflection on this hyperreal culture of catastrophe that we have created for ourselves and the rationale behind it. It also questions the reaction to NEO culturally (this will have a peculiar importance at the United Nations when they will have to coordinate the effort internationally in case of an hazardous asteroid).

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

NBH: So the challenge was that I thought there was an actual procedure that was written [for dealing with an incoming asteroid]. I just assumed that. But in starting the project, we realized that it is much more complex than that. Yes, there is a procedure that runs from a monitoring device: telescopes [all over] the world to the scientists that find out that an asteroid is likely to impact Earth, or an amateur astronomer (amateurs have a big role to play in NEO detection) to the Minor Planet Center (MPC).

At the MPC, the information is processed, and here’s something to consider: there are only a few people working for MPC. They are a small team. They’ve got supercomputers running, but what happens if there is a blackout? There are a lot of potential issues with the procedure which we found doing the film. If there is an emergency, then the call goes to a mobile phone. But what happens if that person is not there to pick up the mobile phone?

It’s also the United Nations. Astronaut Rusty Schweickart at the B612 Foundation and the Association of Space Explorers has been spending a lot of time to get to the core of the issue, to make the UN understand that there was a need for a global response and that there should be a special committee to look at the question. They put a proposal together and the text finally got accepted. I remember Rusty saying that the whole process of writing it and presenting it at the UN took about eight years. And now, we start to put it in place.

But if an asteroid were to strike tomorrow, we’re not quite ready yet.

On a positive note, I want people to realize that there are things in place, but that there needs to be more attention on funding the NEO program. Asteroids are getting more attention because of the mining projects or the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). But it needs to be a worldwide effort. It can’t just be NASA; it needs to be global. We need more monitoring devices in place to look at the sky and make sure there is a structure to take in all the data, because there is so much data being produced. One of the challenges in making the film was to try to make this process more visible.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

NBH: I would like them to interrogate themselves and think of what they would do if they were in the shoes of one of the film contributors. 

My discipline is design. I still think in those terms. I think about materials, about how they fit together. I think about communication and tangibility. I did my first feature film to document the process of a project I assembled in NASA Ames Research Park and The SETI Institute: the International Space Orchestra. This is an orchestra made of individuals who works at NASA and the SETI Institute and they reenact the drama of mission control.

I make films but I am trained as a designer. I come from this series of designers called critical designers, speculative designers. My mentor, Prof. Anthony Dunne, taught me while I was at the Royal College of Art in Design Interaction, and he created this whole platform for design for debate. Critical design aims to really push the boundaries of design and to reconsider the element of fiction. Narrative is a big part of what we do, but instead of finding answers, we generate questions. For example, how might the future of nanotechnology evolve? How might the future of synthetic biology evolve, and how might the public relate to it? So we try to generate these questions through design and creative practices.

In that sense, it is crucial for me that this debate take place in the viewer’s mind.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

NBH: Work hard (very, very hard), and never ever give up. A no is never a no, and turn every no into a yes.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

NBH: The biggest misconception usually is to assume that I am a scientist and that I work for scientists. I work for the public to access the surreal and fantastical in science. I design experiences for them to get there. I am designing “extreme experiences” for the public in order for them to question what the future of space exploration might be, how could they make dark energy in their kitchen sink and other surreal experiences, how can they make it for real? I believe that, by taking an extreme approach (Antonin Artaud talked about “the theater of cruelty” for that type of radical approach with the public), you really get the public to actively engage with a cause or a research ,and that is what motivates me with space exploration.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? 

NBH: “Disaster Playground” was supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and co-commissioned through Broadway’s Near Now program. And we had a series of partners and supporters across the digital fields (We Transfer and Mailchimp), the artistic field (the Victoria and Albert Museum, the design institution MU in Eindhoven), and a lot of in-kind support from the SETI Institute. All of our great supporters are visible on our website.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

NBH: Surrealist director Maya Deren for the boldness of her work across fields. I also enjoy looking at the films of Pipilotti Rist. They were using film and media in an artistic context and a very visceral use of the camera (the video in which she gets a camera inside herself). Also, I absolutely adore the feature films of my mentor, artists Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie (“BATA-VILLE,” “The Tudors,” “Jaywick”). I was lucky enough to be taught by Nina, and she always has been a fantastic support to the films I did, from watching the edits to coming to the premiere. Nina and Karen also perform roles inside their films, and that is very interesting to see how this works together with directing and gives a dynamic tone to a feature documentary.

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