A History of Stillness: Five Documentaries by Chantal Akerman

Chantal Akerman's No Home Movie

Chantal Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, is a powerful work of visual stillness. Nearly all of its images were shot within the walls of a single apartment, that of the filmmaker’s mother. Like an even more formally rigorous Amour, it presents Akerman’s struggle to tangle with her family history in the last months of her mother’s life. Yet unlike Michael Haneke’s film, it stubbornly rejects conventional narrative. It’s a work of mourning, not simply a work about mourning. Its stasis is like the act of sitting shiva, physically inhabiting the home of a loved one as an act of concentrated memory. Suddenly every window, every wall is inflected by bereavement. Even those few images taken from outside of the home, like the long opening shot of a windswept tree in an Israeli desert, are attuned to this stylistic embrace of contemplative stasis.

And so it is easy to imagine the editing of No Home Movie as such, an act of ritualistic mourning. However, it also emerges from a long career of what is often reductively referred to as “slow cinema,” a stylistic arc that has been bending towards stillness for quite some time. This is particularly obvious in a group of documentaries that Akerman made over the last 25 years, which are now available as a DVD box set from Icarus Films. They are: From the East (1993), South (1999), From the Other Side (2002) and Down There (2006).

Taken together, they chart a gradual deceleration of the nonfiction image, from a mood of drifting silence to the total arresting of camera movement. While Akerman never hides her point of view within the observational style of these films, over time there is a clear thematic drift toward a heightened political and emotional solitude. It is a journey toward the deafening silence and evocative stasis of the physically inert image, which remains ever more troubling as it sits, potently lingering within the bounds of her uncompromising approach to editing.

But first, there is the great march of nations and societies out of the 20th century. From the East is the product of Akerman’s trip from Germany to Russia in the wake of the Cold War, a project explicitly about finding images and landscapes rather than facts and figures. Her initial statement of purpose, quoted in the supplement to the Icarus Films release, includes the following:

“There are the obvious historical, social, and political reasons, reasons that underlie so many documentaries and news reports — and that rarely indulge a calm and attentive gaze. But although these are significant, they are not the only reasons. I will not attempt to show the disintegration of a system, nor the difficulties of entering into another one, because she who seeks shall find, find all too well, and end up clouding her vision with her own preconceptions. This undoubtedly will happen anyway; it can’t be helped. But it will happen indirectly.”

From the East contains many scenes of people waiting in line for unstated reasons, protecting themselves from the cold in heavy coats and fur hats. Akerman doesn’t interview them, but instead slowly and deliberately captures their forms in passing. She moves along the line, shooting it as if it were a vast mosaic that cannot be fully understood from a single spot. The real dynamics of the image only emerge due to the equally careful management of time. There is perhaps no better way to distill historical change of such scope than with panoramas like these. The trope of Soviets waiting in a queue is, of course, loaded with all sorts of Cold War symbolism, but in this case that baggage recedes into the background. The enormity of the moment, as well as that of Akerman’s stylistic accomplishment, is front and center.

In South, this use of movement shifts slightly. The film takes place in Jasper, Texas in the wake of a brutal murder. In 1998, a black man named James Byrd Jr. was taken by three white supremacists, tortured and tied to the back of a truck. They dragged him for three miles on an asphalt road, only finally killing him when driving over the edge of a culvert, severing his head. This repugnant crime echoed well beyond the borders of little Jasper, and eventually led to the passing of Texas’s 2001 hate crimes law. Byrd’s name would also share the title of the 2009 expansion of the federal hate crimes law with Matthew Shepard.

Once again, Akerman’s concern is not exclusively political. She interviews Jasper’s citizens, starting with the African American community and eventually reaching a deeply frustrating conversation with a white police officer who downplays any and all racial tension. Yet in spite of this jump to the verbal, she still spends most of her time positioning the themes of the film in its landscapes. The mood is created in long, leisurely drives through Jasper, projecting the anger induced by the facts out into the vegetation and the architecture of Southern decay. The final shot, which follows the route upon which Byrd was so horribly murdered, has an unspoken but unmistakable anger.

Yet in South there is also a long sequence of profound stasis, thirteen minutes spent at Byrd’s funeral. Very unlike the reflective passages outdoors, or even the unadorned interviews, it sticks out. With this blunt assertion of this tragedy’s permanence, Akerman simply presents the emotional and social consequences of the loss of a life. Moreover, this halting also looks ahead at the next two documentaries featured here, which gain much of their resonance from similarly striking acts of editing.

Chantal Akerman's From the Other Side

From the Other Side is a portrait of life on either side of the United States-Mexico border, made just as the federal government was ratcheting up security measures in the wake of September 11th, 2001. Akerman begins in Mexico, interviewing the family members of immigrants who were injured or lost their lives while trying to cross over to the US illegally. When she moves North herself, she talks to more white Americans in law enforcement, including a sheriff who is about as sympathetic a human being as his counterpart in Jasper. It seems that, as far as this local lawman is concerned, the more dangerous the border is the better, humanitarian concerns be damned.

Like South, From the Other Side has a lot of drive-by cinematography. Akerman goes up and down the line of the frontier, capturing the emptiness of the desert and the anti-social character of the fence. The border, despite its prominence on maps, is something of a no-place. It’s mostly abandoned, except when hopeful immigrants risk the crossing. Its purpose is to stop movement, not facilitate it. The camera’s tracking of this forbidding line in the sand further articulates the way that it collapses space, as the American government exerts its energy to halt the flow of humanity.

And once again, a nighttime drive along an unfamiliar road concludes the film. Yet this time it is not in anger, but a mysterious appeal to hope at the end of such a thorough portrait of imposed stasis. Akerman narrates a story about a middle-aged Mexican woman who made it to San Diego, found a job, but then suddenly left. She wonders what happened to her, whether she returned home or whether she simply disappeared. It’s not exactly hopeful, per se, but it is a partial liberation from the enclosures that came before. In the bright light of day, the fences were too forbidding and the evidence of tragedy too clear. In the dark of night, aided by the storytelling of a filmmaker, there is possibility.

Four years later, everything has come to complete stop. Akerman made Down There while teaching in Tel Aviv and living alone in a rented apartment. She peers out the windows at her neighbors on their balconies. She comments to herself, and by extension to the audience, about goings on both outside her building and within her own mind. In one sense, it is a breathtakingly intimate portrayal of depression. Yet it is also a film with vast implications, a psychological reading of the Jewish people, and a deconstruction of isolation more broadly.

Many of the film’s images are stationary shots of the apartment’s large windows, obscured by the mostly-closed shutters. Time and again, Akerman makes sure to leave just a bit of open space, in which she frames her anonymous neighbors standing on their balconies. The camera observes them from afar, protected by the bulk of the shutters. It is observation without real connection, as clear a depiction of social alienation and loneliness as one might imagine.

Meanwhile, Akerman’s voiceover underlines this mood with musings about her habits and her emotional state. She sits at home, “reading complicated books about the Jews.” She takes notes, but half-heartedly. Even leaving the apartment to get food is a battle, the act of taking the bus a personal victory. Mostly, she says, she eats the rice and carrots that were left by her landlady. When she runs out of bread, it causes a minor crisis with no resolution. Clearly baked from scratch by the now-absent landlady, there is no replacement to be found in any of the nearby bakeries. It goes on like this, signs of depression mingling with frank introspection.

Chantal Akerman's Down There

Then tragedy strikes, with implications that undermine even the self-critical awareness in the voiceover up to this point. A terrorist attack takes place in the neighborhood, killing dozens of people. Akerman responds like anyone would, retreating further into the apartment. The act of taking the bus, just a few minutes before considered a small victory over depression, is now banished. Instead, it is now a victory stay in, to act more prudently. And who could criticize?

She fixates, for a moment, on one of the great cliches of our time. “It puts things in perspective,” she says, with a slight hint of disdain in her voice. “What perspective? Then the sorrow returns.” It certainly doesn’t shift the perspective of the film, which continues its method of positioning the camera up against the windows, peering out at unsuspecting neighbors. If anything, it only deepens the mood of stillness and isolation. Even a final trip to the beach, an appeal to light and beauty, cannot really escape from the introspective and tormented tone of the previous hour.

And here it is worth taking a moment to return to the many lengthy automotive tracking shots of the previous films, despite the fact that Down There contains none. They share the DNA of another breathtaking conclusion, shot from the window of yet another car. The first half of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah ends with a furious but silent drive past the evidence of West Germany’s economic boom, built by companies that emerged unscathed out of their Nazi pasts. In fact, the camera is frequently on the move in the 9-hour masterpiece. It evokes the horrible passage of time in a way that archival footage cannot, no matter how explicit it might be. Time and space become a mold into which Lanzmann and Akerman concentrate all of their films’ energy, producing distilled histories and damning questions.

In Shoah this movement also has a palliative quality. It doesn’t soften the blow of its history, but it does help the audience extend its strength over the course of its many hours of travel and grim discovery. And so it is significant that by Down There and No Home Movie, Akerman is no longer willing to move much at all.

What, then, is the perspective into which a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv puts things? In a specifically Jewish context, the fact of life’s preciousness in the wake of catastrophe isn’t exactly new. This is also true of the world at large, particularly in the context of the senseless tragedy of the American-Mexican frontier and the racist violence of the American South. It’s true of all senseless tragedy, all racist violence. What does a sweeping historical perspective change about our ability to really understand why these things happen? How does it change how they manifest in our memory, in our soul?

These pressing, answerless questions emerge once more in No Home Movie, with just as much claustrophobia and even more personal urgency. In the still space of the cinema, without the noise of insistent music or scripted dialogue, free from the rush of Hollywood editing, there is plenty of time to think. These films inspire questions as well as asking them, challenging us to determine whether or not an answer even exists. Their power, which was troubling even before Akerman’s tragic death last October, is in the way that they use stillness to capture the ghostly conundrums of history.

This collective review was originally published on April 1, 2016.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.