Every week or so, filmmaker/writer Robert Greene will attempt to push for a new canon of cinematic nonfiction.
Chantal Akerman’s News From Home is hardly ever called a documentary, but it remains one of the most astounding works of nonfiction ever made. Filmed in 1976, after the director’s breakthrough success of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the movie is a series of stark observational long takes of New York City (in all its mid-seventies glory), assembled as a sort of structuralist city symphony.
Over the course of the film, letters are read by an unseen character (Akerman as herself?), written by an increasingly worried and manipulative mother back in Belgium. The effect is hypnotic; the distanced eye of the camera works in dialectic with the seemingly simple letter readings. The performance of identity is subtly explored and the objective camera becomes an expressive instrument of seeing. Akerman allows us to view the iconic city as if we were from another planet.
Is it fiction? These letters were surely written to be performed and the supposedly objective images slowly begin to play like staged collaborations. The movie dramatizes the feelings Akerman must have felt when first coming to New York four years prior to filming. Or is it a document? No film has ever captured the New York of this era so vividly. (Imagine any of the great seventies city films like The French Connection without the story getting in the way.)
The ending, a completely transfixing 10-minute take of a ferry pulling away from lower Manhattan (WTC towers in full view), is one of the most truly transcendent finales ever. With the simplest means, News From Home is a fully realized masterpiece, denying all categorization while evoking the best of both fiction and documentary. It is a landmark work of what has come to be called the “hybrid” film, a cinematic chimera that deserves to be considered part of the canon.