Chantal Akerman says ‘a film is a film is a film,’ but hers really are different

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Akerman introduced a 2002 documentary last night ()
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“Tomorrow or after tomorrow or after one year, you will remember these shots. Usually you forget. But you won’t forget my shots because I insist, I insist right up to the point where it’s almost unbearable.”

They came across, perhaps, as fighting words, but their speaker, Chantal Akerman, the Brussels-born artist (she is primarily known as a filmmaker, but has also written books, acted, and shown in galleries), now a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the City College of New York, was also merely being honest—if brutally so. Speaking in Q&A session on Thursday with Professor Jerry W. Carlson, Director of the CUNY Cinema Studies Program, following a screening of her 2002 documentary De l’autre côté, (From the Other Side) at the French Institute Alliance Française, there was stunning force and energy to her language.

In her brief introduction, she took a similarly blunt tack. The audience, she cautioned, would have to be “very patient.”

“Don’t wait for the next shot,” she instructed; “the next shot will happen.” And then, just before the lights dimmed, she said “I hope you will get through it.” It was meant partly in jest; Akerman seems nonchalant about her reputation as a difficult filmmaker. And the film itself, an elliptical documentary that circles around the question of illegal immigration, particularly through profiles of the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta and its American counterpart, Douglas, AZ, was barren but engaging. But it was also a fair warning in the age of movies like Transformers or The Bourne Identity, whose average shot length hovers around two seconds.

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Those more familiar with Akerman’s style—particularly the 1975 film that is generally acknowledged as her masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23,  quai du Commercie, 1080 Bruxelles, made when the director was just twenty-five—might not have needed the disclaimer. Akerman is known for long, straight-ahead shots, for a stately camera (shots are, in general, either completely still, or track slowly, deliberately), for scenes set in what seems like real-time. And it’s a not insignificant amount of real time: Jeanne Dielman is 201 mostly mundane minutes. A middle-aged, widowed housewife peels potatoes, makes a meatloaf, takes a bath, has dinner with her son. She also welcomes a gentleman into her apartment and has sex with him; before he leaves, he hands her a wad of cash. During the entire sequence, the camera is situated so that the viewer can see neither her nor her client’s head. It is not titillating.

At the cocktail reception that followed last night's screening, one attendee remarked, of Jeanne Dielman's seemingly endless shots of its protagonist blankly cycling through the daily rituals of her life: “on the one hand it seems so trivial, but on the other hand, life is made up of all these discrete moments.”

Which is one reason why Akerman's films, despite the demands that they make on the viewer, are also deeply rewarding. Her arrestingly beautiful compositions are another—even in a documentary like De l’autre côté, her subjects seemed transformed, made statuesque, by her camera’s dead-on gaze. Once one has settled into the stately rhythms, once they become the viewer’s own, the result, which lies on the other side of tedium, is a profounder understanding of the ways in which our own lives resist the narrative arcs to which we attempt to force them to adhere, the ways in which our lives are actually a collection of discrete moments that may or may not connect, minute after minute after minute, tomorrow and after tomorrow.

These minutes concern Akerman. In her pre-film introduction, she mentioned that she wanted, with De l’autre côté, to have the audience “experience time passing through their bodies.” In one extraordinary scene a barber sits in front of her camera for thirty seconds, a minute, breathing; the audience breathes with him. He doesn’t speak, ever. Finally, Akerman cuts away.

While many of Akerman’s  films take covertly, or even overtly, political issues as their subject matter—in D’est, (From the East) a documentary about life in East Germany immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in Sud (South) about the murder of the African-American James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, by white supremacists—and while the Holocaust and its legacy are always, as she said in last night's Q&A, “behind my head” (her mother survived Auschwitz) she doesn’t regard herself as a political filmmaker. Nor does she think of herself as a feminist filmmaker—though Jeanne Dielman is widely considered as a significant feminist text, its narrative structure thwarting the male gaze (never has prostitution seemed so banal; never has the cooking process, rather than its results, been so minutely detailed), denying the viewer the expected visual pleasure. She regards herself, she said, taking a break outside to smoke a cigarette during the cocktail reception “as a filmmaker, that’s all ... A film is a film is a film is a film.”

And yet, in highlighting the moments elided in traditional narratives, in choosing to fragment the structure of her films (in Je, Tu, Il, Elle, the protagonist writes in her journal but the voice-over narration—presumably the text of that journal—at times contradicts the on-screen events), in choosing to let the viewer supply the connective thread, the emotion, the visual resonances, Akerman goes against the dominant, available forms.

“They need to talk” she said of the people she had interviewed for De l’autre côté, many of whom had lost relatives to the deserts of the borderlands, or had attempted the border crossing only to be arrested and returned to Mexico. The urgency of these narratives is inextricably linked to their lack of exposure elsewhere; turning a camera on and allowing the marginalized to speak into it when others do not, just like utilizing camera and actors in the ways her dramatic films do, constitutes a political action.

Akerman’s way of being political—rejecting the traditional narrative arcs that three-act films offer us—is unusual among today’s independent filmmakers. It was once a given that a feminist narrative ought not be constructed from the same forms that had for so long been the conduit only for male ones: and so viewers watched a woman go about her day for three excruciating hours. Today, having women involved in the production of a cultural product, or foregrounded in it, is generally seen as sufficient ground on which to stake a feminist claim. It’s not that formal experimentation has no place in today’s cinema—think of Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, Steven Soderbergh’s Ché, or David Lynch’s Inland Empire. What seems closer to the truth is that formal experimentation in film now reads as aesthetic; a sense of the confrontational has been lost.

Akerman would probably scoff at such distinctions: experimental versus traditional; aesthetic versus political; confrontational versus reassuring. After all, for her: A film is a film is a film is a film. And perhaps that’s the attitude one must have to make them. But as a consumer, these distinctions, and the questions underlying them, are crucial.

Event photo (above left) by Sasha Arutyunova.