Home Video Hovel: Chantal Akerman: Four Films, by Scott Nye
In Chantal Akerman, From Here, a 2010 feature-length interview with the filmmaker included in this set, Akerman speaks about her distaste for the idea that the best films are those that pass the quickest. She feels such films rob the viewer of their time. Time is, after all, the only real commodity we have. She prefers to make her audience aware of every second passing, to luxuriate in it with a degree of focus we are not usually allowed. This, for me, and I’m sure for a great many other cinephiles, is the central appeal of “slow cinema”, a loosely-connected genre of long static shots and minimal plotting that’s become increasingly popular in the international festival circuit with the rise of digital cinema, and which in its modern incarnation Akerman virtually helped found. The four films collected here, all documentaries made between 1993 and 2006 – three on digital video – may seem initially like so many other modern films that capitalize on the endless shooting potential of post-analog workflow, but this is a tempo in which she has always worked, thought, and expressed herself.
So minimalist is Akerman’s aesthetic that these films never expressly say what subject they are covering. One can gather hints from the titles and perhaps recognize the locations, but like an installation at an art gallery, there is refuge to be found in the accompanying literature that gives at least the briefest of outlines. From the East (1993) is a desolate portrait of a place that feels almost purgatorial. This is because Akerman shot it in East Germany, Poland, Moscow, and other countries immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Places wracked with histories of violence and oppression are central to the others – South (1999), about the vulnerability of black lives in America; From the Other Side (2002), about life at the southern American border; and Down There (2006), about the time she spent in Israel as a teacher – and lingering trauma is not an unfamiliar topic in much of Akerman’s other work as well.
She approaches these places with similar methods, with a mix of still frames and slow panning shots hitched to a van or truck as it travels through areas both abandoned and dangerous. Akerman herself appears sometimes in voice as an interviewer, but is largely absent until Down There, which is nearer to autobiography or memoir than a document of a time and place. South – which began filming days after a horrific lynching – and From the East are directly tied to a specific event; From the Other Side to an ongoing conflict.
Down There, on the other hand, makes little, if any, reference to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Akerman herself is the daughter of Holocaust survivors who relocated in Brussels, and her family had great difficulty adjusting to life and culture there. Throughout the film, she views Israel as a sort of alternate life she might have had, had her family’s immediate postwar years gone slightly differently, or had she been born slightly later. Most of it is set inside her apartment, which allows many of strengths familiar to fans of the similarly-set Jeanne Dielman, her most famous film. The lady knew how to frame a room, what can I say. But more pointedly, the confinement suggests a sort of isolation, that though she is Jewish and though she is living there as a guest of the country, she will always be somewhat apart from the nation of Israel, and in a larger sense from Jewish faith and life. Akerman, an atheist gay female filmmaker who regularly explored Jewish culture, resisted any such labels in her work, and refused to have her films shown at LGBT festivals in particular. Down There suggests a sort of loneliness that comes with refusing group identity.
It is tempting to view her American-set films with the knowledge of her as a European visitor, taking a superior attitude to complex social problems in the United States, and she treads close to that territory in From the Other Side. She interviews a few white locals about their feelings towards immigrants, one of whom comes across as a stereotype of a Bush-era ‘Murica Patriot. While her aesthetic, as ever, suggests a lack of judgment, the inclusion of him at all lends little to what is otherwise a genuinely curious film intent on exploring the factors that result in such a tense environment. Things get a little clearer when she interviews a local sheriff, who is more able or willing to get into the notions of what freedom represents to the community, which largely revolves around notions of property and self-defense, and what it means to be a policeman in a place that feels it can fend for itself. That this is the second-longest film in the set makes these sort of issues stand out a bit more, as the longest – From the East – is so strange that even Akerman couldn’t deny the occasional humor she comes upon.
South is more successful in exploring a similar subject, largely denying white people access to her frame and instead focusing on long interviews with black people who have horrifying stories to tell of decades of oppression. Here, even more than the other three films, the long driving shots are essential to fully comprehending and beginning to process what we hear. Where those shots in From the East are about capturing the texture of a dying culture, in South they highlight just how remote and isolated life in America can be, how little chance the victims in these places have of making their tragedies known, and how the environment itself seems to swallow and bury their experiences.
The major supplement in the set, the aforementioned interview film, is as difficult as any of the films themselves. A totally static shot that begins when she enters the interview room and ends when she leaves it, From Here suggests the sort of framing Akerman herself employs, but it comes across a little too clever by half, especially as it is rather difficult to make out the actual questions she is asked without raising the volume a good deal. For those unfamiliar with Akerman as a public figure, she is loathe to talk about her creative process and stylistic choices, frustrated by the academic and critical need to define her work and eager to remove the responsibility to do so from herself. While the bulk of the films available to American viewers fit neatly into the way she has been most popularly understood, Akerman has also made a musical (Golden Eighties), at least two comedies (A Couch in New York and Tomorrow We Move), a Joseph Conrad adaptation (Almayer’s Folly), and a film composed almost entirely of Jewish jokes (Histoires d’Amerique). I haven’t nearly seen all her work, but the dozen or so I have reveal a surprisingly diverse filmmaker with a great deal more to express than the “slow, meditative, distant” way she has often been spoken of.
While this set will hardly disabuse viewers of this notion, it does collect some incredible films and gives us a unique chance to sit with her for an hour, unfiltered by any sort of editing. When I disparage modern independent cinema for its meekness, the shallowness of thought and lack of creativity in execution it proposes as an alternative to the mainstream, I am thinking about artists like Akerman, who for decades blazed trails nobody asked to be made. This set is a gift, a chance to spend six hours in Akerman Standard Time. A short booklet with essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Amy Taubin, two major champions of her work and among the finest thinkers on cinema we have in this world, helps provide some added context into one of the great filmmakers. No other labels needed.