Is, Was and Will Be: Living with the films of Chantal Akerman

Is, Was and Will Be:
Living with the films of Chantal Akerman

Discovering Chantal Akerman’s films was such a vital part of my becoming a filmmaker.  While I did not know her personally, I feel that I grew up with her as my guide for how to be in the world, as a woman filmmaker trying to articulate some aspect of my life and other women’s lives in the medium of film. I first saw Chantal’s films, along with those of Agnès Varda and Marguerite Duras, as a student in Paris in the 1980s. Honestly, it wasn’t the fact that these directors were women, at the time this was almost incidental; it was more about their expression. This triumvirate of French filmmakers was doing something with the cinematic image that I had never in my life imagined was possible. Each in her own distinctive way was embracing the camera in order to articulate her own experience in the world in an astonishingly imaginative, poetic and radical way. The first film I saw by Akerman was The Golden Eighties (1986). Knowing her work much better now, I can recognize that this bawdy high-spirited musical is not typical of her work, but, nevertheless, I was drawn to its genre-bending confidence, the way the film embraced and refracted the spirit of the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals and narratives.

Next there was Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the four-hour avant-garde but oh-so-story-driven portrait of a mother who quietly and elegantly works as a prostitute to pay her bills. You know a director’s work is vital to your very being when you can remember where you were each and every time you had the chance to see her films. Well before the Internet could make the whole history of film available on a laptop, I was teaching a world cinema class in Tampa, Florida in 1995. I had heard of Jeanne Dielman but had never seen in it, and, unfortunately, it was not yet available on tape. So, I rallied all the powers and funds that I had in the university, and rented all four bulky, scratched 16mm reels for the class, and insisted that my students stick with me for the duration. Of course few did, but those who committed to watching this brilliant, subtle homage to the quotidian and the subversive were enthralled, and, I believe, changed for life. Plus, I had the chance to see the film for the first time, which I watched while nursing my new baby daughter Maya (named for Maya Deren of course) who is now twenty years old.

In 1997, a year after I moved to New York City, I was once again enveloped by things-Akerman. One winter afternoon I trekked uptown to the Jewish Museum to see Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s “D’Est,” a large-scale film and video installation featuring Akerman’s journey to eastern Germany, Poland and Russia in the early 1990s, following the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany. Using images of everyday scenes of the city, the countryside and the people she encountered on her travels, Akerman created a somber, delicate multi-screened rendering of a society poised for change but still reckoning with its troubled past. As I remember it, viewers moved through a hallway of video screens that made you feel as if you were walking with Akerman through the landscape and the streets–watching, listening and feeling everything from the brush of a stalk of wheat to the entire zeitgeist of a continent in motion.

Eventually, much of her work became available on tape or disk, and so I began to watch films like Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town 1968), Je, tu, il, elle (I You He She, 1976), and Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978) and many more. By this time, I knew that Chantal’s (by now I felt more at ease with her first name) personal yet austere approach to filmmaking had been extremely influential in terms of my own creative practice. To this day, I return to her films over and over. Watching an Akerman film is like reading a poem. Each time I settle down to watch one I learn something about the artist’s approach to her craft; I see one of her characters in a different light; and I learn about who I am at the very moment that I engage with the cinematic universe that is Chantal Akerman. With her death, I find a sliver of solace in knowing that each time I enter this transcendent space I am somehow in conversation with one of the world’s greatest filmmakers.