Chantal Akerman

After a few mis-starts last week, I finally managed to attend one of the key screening dates of the Chantal Akerman retrospective currently playing in Los Angeles. Luckily, it was a documentary marathon, so not only was I able to check out the lovely new REDCAT theatre in downtown L.A., I also managed to see four Akerman films: her landmark News From Home and her “documentary trilogy” comprised of D’Est (From the East), South, and From the Other Side. Although Akerman is merely in her fifties, she has in fact produced around 40 films in a wide variety of modes (documentary, personal essay, drama, romantic comedy, even a musical) and in a variety of formats and venues. I’ve only just begun my appreciation of her work, but this small taste has gotten me excited about the rest of her oeuvre.

The series has been co-curated by CalArts’ BÈrÈnice Reynaud, who aided Akerman on the production of From the Other Side and introduced each of the REDCAT screenings. Akerman was born in Belgium but she is the daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors from Poland. Reynaud suggested that much of Akerman’s cinema is implicitly concerned with the plight of Jews in the diaspora, and can be read in the many trains, cars, faces, and places that appear throughout her work.

Akerman is known for her stylistic rigor and minimalist aesthetic (she recently named Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket as “the film of my life”) and the following documentaries offer some of the most potent arguments for the beauty, freedom, and complexity such an approach can achieve.

News From Home (1976)

Reynaud told us there is only one print available of this film in North America (luckily it’s also on video), and it is currently missing. So she apologized profusely about the faded, scratched UK print we watched, although I didn’t find it very distracting.

Akerman’s film is a collection of footage (shot by cinematographer Babette Mangolte, a filmmaker in her own right) of New York City in the mid-’70s involving tracking shots and static, formal compositions. The duration of each shot is extended, many of them are several minutes in length as they simply record the comings and goings of the city’s inhabitants and the sights and sounds of one of the world’s largest metropolises. There are shots of the city streets, a steady stream of cars coming and going, children playing baseball; there are shots of the subway beneath the streets, trains arriving and departing, lovers embracing, businesspeople going home, teenagers chewing gum. There are long takes within the subway cars themselves, the perpetual starting and stopping supplying a steady rhythm dictating arrivals and departures in the daily routines of thousands of lives.

But what transforms the film into something more than just a carefully-observed time capsule is its juxtaposition of voice over: Akerman herself reads letters from home written by her mother that tell of family concerns and practical details. They express parental love and support with constant reminders to write more often. Akerman layers this narration over the images of the city at regular intervals, allowing pauses for reflection. At times, the city’s sounds become dominant; at other times, the narration is foregrounded. Sometimes the narration and ambient noise fluidly merge into an ambiguous juxtaposition, passing cars muffle the ongoing news from home. What emerges is a profoundly personal meditation on the complexities of place–it’s not just New York City, but Akerman’s New York City, a home away from home, personal and remote, familiar yet foreign. And to see the film is to share her world and recognize our own within it.

D’Est (From the East) (1993)

The screening notes claim this film was shot in 16mm and I’m still trying to convince myself that it’s true. Traveling throughout Eastern Europe shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but in unspecified locations, Akerman records the people and architecture and sounds she comes across, lovingly lingering over them in gloriously elongated tracking movements or classically-framed stationary shots, producing images stunning in their spontaneous color and formal beauty. She favors late afternoons and winter evenings as her camera glides past endless lines of Europeans (this film focuses more on individuals than the city structures of News From Home) and captures their lives enshrouded in deep colors and atmospheric shadows. In one shot, the camera records a long line of pedestrians standing next to the street. As fresh snowfall accumulates around those waiting and watching (and reacting in various ways to Akerman’s camera, sometimes never seeing it, sometimes seeing it and ignoring it, sometimes offering a spontaneous performance), the sense of time and social expectancy is worthy of a BÈla Tarr movie.

Given its time frame, Akerman captures a people in a specific political transition attempting to bridge the past, present, and future. Again, the detached, somewhat objective stylistic approach invites the viewer not only to engage the portrait of real people in real locations, but to recognize in their mysterious personas and enigmatic contexts a universal expectation toward life, home, and an unspecified future. It’s the ultimate “people watching” experience on film, one that’s flooded with human nuance and cultural detail.

South (1999)

Akerman wanted to create a film about the beauty of the American South, but after arriving on location in Jasper, Texas, a brutal, racist murder occured that changed her focus. A black man, James Byrd, Jr., was beaten by three white men and chained to their truck–he was then dragged for three miles down a back road to a black cemetary, where his remains were deposited.

Unlike the preceding films, Akerman incorporates interviews in South, partly because it addresses an event and requires necessary exposition. Several people comment on the murder and race relations in general in and around Jasper, including several elderly black residents, the town sheriff, and a journalist; all agree that although things are better than they used to be previous to the Civil Rights movement, tensions remain vividly entrenched.

In many ways, the film is a meditation on violent crime as much as it is racial violence in specific, and as such, Akerman includes two of the films most emotional sequences, one is a significant portion of a black church memorial service that is rich in culturally-specific mourning rituals, and the other is the final shot of the film: a continuous view driving along the entire three-mile long stretch of the road Byrd was executed on. The camera is mounted on the back of a slow-moving vehicle and it points backward, a stylistic device that recurs throughout Akerman’s films, ensuring that the visual journey is one of continual discovery rather than simple clarification of what lies ahead. Each foot of the pavement reveals new terrain previously nonexistent to the viewer and serves as a potent reminder that the past must never be forgotten.

From the Other Side (2002)

I attended the University of Arizona in Tucson and lived there for several years and I currently live in Southern California, so I have long been familiar with tensions on the US/Mexico border to some degree, although any time I have crossed it I have been unceremoniously waved through without so much as being asked to stop my vehicle; many of my friends and I have always assumed this was simply because we were white. Despite all the rhetoric you may have heard about North American “free trade” and the “opening of borders,” the US/Mexico border is one of the most heavily militarized zones in the world: US marines, night scopes, motion sensors, guard towers, an 18-foot concrete barricade, and a fleet of military helicopters constantly patrol the area. In spite of this, many Central and South American workers attempt to cross into the US in search of higher wages each year, many of whom get lost, starve, or freeze to death, or drown in the flash floods that frequently occur in the parched desert.

Akerman once again offers a reflection on people and landscape, home and happiness by depicting the border and its inhabitants through her arsenal of stylistic tactics–formal compositions and extended tracking shots–along with interviews and another first: sporadic, nondiegetic music. The title is appropriately enigmatic: the “other side” could equally apply to those on either side of the border and thus merely defines people according to their “otherness.” The film, however, reveals the participants as human beings caught in a world of technology and commercialization that separates people rather than brings them together.

A US official in Douglas, Arizona admits that one increasing problem in the region is uncontrolled civilian law enforcement, and although Akerman avoids the sort of mocking showmanship someone like Michael Moore might have accommodated, one of the most chilling scenes in the film is her interview of US residents who practically brag about their ability to shoot immigrants they happen to come across. Voicing concerns about the “diseases” immigrants bring and US-trained 9/11 terrorists, one middle class US couple asserts their right to shoot anyone trespassing on their property, especially if the immigrant possesses “a stick or a knife.” Further, the ‘No Trespassing’ signs are warning enough, “and they don’t have to be in Spanish, either,” the husband explains, “I live in America.”

The film is the latest in a long line of extraordinary documentaries by Akerman that explore just what it means to live somewhere.