You might say that she makes her directorial choices deliberately visible, as opposed to the “invisible” style used in most commercial filmmaking.
Chantal Akerman is one of the most significant European filmmakers of her generation. Her 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, made when she was 24 years old, is one of the few films directed by a woman to consistently be chosen as among the greatest of all time. Her directorial style is about as far as you can get from that of the typical Hollywood film (you might say that she makes her directorial choices deliberately visible, as opposed to the “invisible” style used in most commercial filmmaking), and her influence can be seen on many current directors including Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Michael Haneke, and Sally Potter.
Akerman also made a number of groundbreaking documentaries, and four of them are included in a new DVD release from Icarus Films, Chantal Akerman: Four Films, which together offer a good introduction to this side of Akerman’s work. While these films can be watched in any order, of course, for a viewer new to her work I would recommend viewing them out of chronological order, as follows: South, From the Other Side, From the East, and Down There (if you already know her work, then you don’t need my advice). Akerman’s style can be off-putting to those unfamiliar with it, and my recommended viewing order begins with her most approachable films, giving the viewer a chance to acclimate to her style and thus be in a better position to appreciate the more difficult films.
There’s an elephant in the room in South (1999): the murder and mutilation of James Byrd, Jr. Byrd was a black man murdered in 1998 by three white men in Jasper, Texas, by being dragged behind a truck for three miles. In contrast to the horrifying nature of this crime (which led to the passage of laws against hate crimes both in Texas and at the federal level), South is an almost preternaturally calm film, juxtaposing fixed-camera views of Southern locales with interviews and tracking shots of roads and houses. The crime is not mentioned until near the end of the film, and South is certainly not a straightforward issues documentary along the lines of, say, The Central Park Five. Instead of feeding you the facts of a particular case or deliberately provoking outrage, it calmly builds up a picture of a place in which such a crime could occur. South was shot on video and uses only diegetic sound, and while the latter is effective in creating a sense of place, the former is sometimes unfortunate because the low resolution and occasional blurring when the camera is moving detract from the beauty of Akerman’s images.
From the Other Side (2002) takes on a topic that will be familiar to most Americans—immigration from Mexico to the United States. Like South, it features people speaking directly to the camera, and these interviews provide both information and a personal connection with the subject that makes this film relatively easy to relate to. Unlike South, From the Other Side was shot on a combination of video and film, incorporates archival footage, includes some non-diegetic music and ends with fictional narration that is poetic and different in tone from what came before.
The general impression, built up with long, static shots, created in From the Other Side, is of a dry and dusty land, and of Mexican people who have strong family ties and have created beauty within a hostile environment (one of the most remarkable shots, which is classic Akerman, features a young man in a blue jacket sitting on a bed in a pink bedroom, with another pink bedroom seen through a doorway to his right). Most of this film was shot in and around the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta, with the camera moving across the newly-constructed security fence to the town of Douglas, Arizona for the final segments. Although this is not a documentary arguing for a particular point of view, the fact that most of the voices heard are Mexicans tacitly privileges their point of view. Similarly, the transition to the U.S. portion of the film is marked by a sign saying “Stop the Crime Wave! Our Property and Environment is Being Trashed by Invaders” suggests that the filmmaker’s sympathies do not lie with the residents of Arizona.
From the East (1993), the earliest film in this collection, was shot in Eastern Europe not long after the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Akerman makes no attempt to identify the different locations featured in this film, and the result is a collage of sun and snow, fields and city streets, and above all lots of people waiting, whether they are queued up for something or just standing around. There are some cheerier moments, particularly at musical events, but overall it’s a pretty gloomy environment, winter or summer. In that regard, it’s worth remembering that this is Akerman’s view of her subject—cameras don’t point themselves, much less turn themselves on, and no one has yet invented self-editing film—rather than “the” reality of anything, which is, of course, true of any documentary.
In some sense From the East is a throwback to the very first films shown in public, the 19th-century Actualités that fascinated audiences with views of workers leaving a factory or a train coming into a station. Although the subjects before Akerman’s lens may be somewhat less familiar, at least to Western audiences, she still manages to capitalize on the fact that the most ordinary activities can become fascinating when viewed on screen rather than in real life. The fact that From the East was shot on film (16mm) rather than video is a real bonus in this film, because the absence of narrative or characters (some voices are heard, they’re part of the ambient sound) focuses your attention on the images, and thus those images need to bear up to close scrutiny.
Down There (2006) is the least viewer-friendly film in this set, and yet some people really like it (including the 2007 César jury, which nominated it for Best Documentary). Shot primarily from within a Tel Aviv apartment where Akerman was staying, most of the film is made up of fixed-camera long shots of the world as viewed through the apartment windows, often through a screen (and since it was shot on video, that means lots of strobing). Not a lot happens—people drink coffee, water their plants, and so on—and the primary interest becomes Akerman’s voice as she answers the phone (mostly, she declines invitations to go out) and ruminates on her health, her Jewish heritage, and her aunt’s suicide, among other things. She seems almost a prisoner within this flat, although one of her own mental state rather than of any exterior power, and the thoughts she expresses might be spontaneous or might be a script she wrote for the film. Akerman is present only as a disembodied voice for most of the film, until the camera briefly ventures outdoors, where we see her for the first time; then she disappears back into the apartment, where she is seen only once more, but just barely, as a reflection. To me, this is one of those films that you watch because it’s part of a great artist’s body of work, rather than for its own merits, but that’s a real YMMV judgment.
Extras on the set include an hour-long video interview with Akerman (“Chantal Akerman: From Here”), a bonus scene from From the East, trailers, and a 12-page illustrated booklet including essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Amy Taubin. The booklet essays are quite good and provide a fine introduction to Akerman. The video interview is opposite and does the director an inadvertent service by showing that it’s not so easy as it might seem to make a good film in the Chantal Akerman style (you know, the way some people look at an abstract painting and then say “My kid could paint that!”). Directors Gustavo Beck and Leonardo Luiz Ferreira seem to have set up their camera and just let it run, even when no one was in the room, the subject was out of frame, or random people were walking past, and presented the unedited result as their film. In other words, they incorporated a few aspects of Akerman’s style—long takes, a still camera, and the use of framing elements—without considering how to use those elements to make a meaningful film of their own. The content of the interview is not that informative either—Akerman and her off-screen narrator have no rapport, both are doing battle with the English language (it would have been better if they should have conducted it in French or whatever other language they both feel at home using, and then added subtitles for the English-speaking market), and only a few interesting tidbits emerge from 62 minutes of screen time (lots of water is drunk and a forbidden cigarette smoked, however). | Sarah Boslaugh