Neil Beloufa

Ghost songs of ourselves

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Neil Beloufa, still from Kempinski, 2007. Courtesy Kai Middendorff Galerie

When I want to make love I think directly about my wife… and she also thinks about me… and through telepathy we make love, that’s all.
—From Kempinski, by Neil Beloufa

In Neil Beloufa’s fourteen-minute film Kempinski, residents of Bamako, Mali, speak about the future in the present tense. In Untitled, another short film, a family living on the outskirts of Algiers imagines the lives of the terrorists who once occupied their modernist home — where they slept, what they ate and drank, how they went about their exercise routines.

The twenty six year-old Paris-based artist mines the speculative, creating situations in which characters imagine things that may or may not have happened. Having set the stage, he steps aside, allowing people and their stories to take on lives of their own. What ensues is very often unexpected, if not bizarre.

Take Kempinski. Beloufa films ordinary Malians as they calmly communicate their visions of the future, often as monologues. One by one, they describe a surreal earth populated by animals, telepathic lovemaking, and the ability to travel at warp speed:

We do not need cars, nor planes… We move through light, through sound… through our ideas.

From here I can get to the North Pole in half a second.

Since the planet on which men live is saturated, I am the only man who lives with hundreds of oxen.

The effect is eerie and dystopic and compounded by the fact that the speakers are filmed in the dark, their faces lit up like jack-o’-lanterns by fluorescent bulbs. Occasionally the camera cuts to towering electric floodlights in the distance. The floodlights emit a haunting chirp, which serves as the film’s soundtrack. In a sense, Kempinski is a series of urban campfire songs, stories in which the narrator of the ghost story is also the ghost.

From a distance, the “Africa of the future” may seem like an oxymoron, but Beloufa manages to evince it while pushing back on our expectations. He admits that most of the Malians he interviewed were well versed in the stuff of standard Hollywood sci-fi. (Many of them cited Minority Report.) But rather than delivering pre-fab ideas about the future, their visions remain idiosyncratic — even, you might say, African. Kempinski reminds us that we may have all watched the same movies, but we don’t necessarily dream the same dreams. As the Malians narrate the future-present, making it up as they go along, they reveal the magic of science fiction — or perhaps simply fiction — as a strange form of truth.

In Untitled, the Algerian family returns to their home to find that the intruders have left it in perfect condition. The camera captures half-obscured backs of heads and silhouettes of family members as they process traces of their ghost-intruders (“They didn’t live a family-like life, where you stay in the living room, turn on the lights, and serve dinner”). You can just barely discern that the house is actually Potemkin; as a draft blows through, a view of lush tropical trees reveals itself as nothing more than a poster glued onto a flimsy cardboard door that flaps open and closed. Like the floodlights in Kempinski, the peekaboo presence of the low-fi set refers back to the circumstances of the filming and, ultimately, like all the individual stories that don’t add up, its constructed nature.

At the moment, Beloufa is shooting a film about the real estate industry in Paris. While casting about for a studio, he grew obsessed with the diverse and slippery narratives agents would summon up, hawking homes as if putting forth cakes on a tray. One agent might emphasize handy elevator access or nearby restaurants. Another, the quality of local schools.

Like Kempinski, which revolves around a simple question (Can you describe the future in the present tense?), the new project’s point of departure is static (Can you find me a home?). A customer comes in. An agent tries to make a sale. The furniture and the interiors serve as equally static totems, while occasionally a view from the window reveals the Eiffel Tower or some other heavily coded presence. The shifting dialogues are left to occupy the space. We watch one after the other after the other, and it slowly becomes clear that the home is a blank slate on which any domestic fantasy can be projected. The story is never exactly the same, and yet each time, it’s as true as ever.

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Neil Beloufa, still from Kempinski, 2007. Courtesy Kai Middendorff Galerie