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ELEMENTAL AKERMAN: INSIDE AND OUTSIDE NO HOME MOVIE Ivone Margulies The wind-buffeted tree in No Home Movie. “And, as one says, the red thread of this film is a character, a The film is taken up mainly with the interior of a spacious woman born in Poland, who arrives in Belgium in 1938 to flee bourgeois apartment and three strongly felt presences— the pogroms and the horror. This woman is my mother.”1
  ELEMENTAL AKERMAN:INSIDE AND OUTSIDE NOHOMEMOVIE  Ivone Margulies “ And, as one says, the red thread of this film is a character, awomanborninPoland,whoarrivesinBelgiumin1938tofleethe pogroms and the horror. This woman is my mother. ” 1 Itdoesnotmatter  from where the wind blows so fiercely inthe opening scene of Chantal Akerman ’ s final film  No Home Movie  ( 2015 ). What matters is its elemental forceagainst a resilient tree in a desert. This raw, exposed treeand its unnerving sound stand in stark contrast to, and rad-ically reframe the protected domain of, an apartment thatbelongs to Chantal ’ s mother, Natalia Leibel Akerman.The filmis takenupmainlywith the interiorof aspaciousbourgeois apartment and three strongly felt presences — Natalia, Chantal, and a camera. 2 Elegant, Natalia slowlycrosses thelivingroomor the kitchenin afilmpunctuatedbyhallwaysandanxiouslyreassuringconversations.Themothersits at the kitchen table, the daughter cooks and serves hermeals,andtheyseemtomothereachother;otherscenes,withacoupleofthemother ’ shelpersandSylviane,Chantal ’ ssister,suggest particular care for Chantal too.When, almost an hour into  No Home Movie , a sequence of unplaceddesertlandscapescutsintotheshieldedapartmentin-teriors,thefilm ’ sopeningshotofawind-buffetedtreeretroac-tivelyassumesthestatusofaprologueforanalternatenarrative.Images of windy, random patches of road, hills, and deserts,filmed mostly from a moving car and often rendered as quite The wind-buffeted tree in  No Home Movie . FILM QUARTERLY  61 Film Quarterly  , Vol. 70, Number 1, pp. 61 – 69, ISSN 0015-1386, electronic ISSN 1533-8630.© 2016 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Pleasedirect all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content throughthe University of California Press ’ s Reprints and Permissions web page, http://www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: 10.1525/FQ.2016.70.1.61.  abstract,thrustanunexplainedurgencyintowhathadbeenanintimaterecord.Much like the tree (filmed with a BlackBerry outside of ahotelwindow),thedesertlandscapesin  No Home Movie con-vey most literally the here and now of the peripatetic film-maker, who will film at home and elsewhere. That thedaughter is one who comes and goes is clear from two ex-tended Skype conversations that are obviously typical of amother-and-daughter routine. They have a hard time sepa-rating in a loving flurry of repeated goodbyes.These Skype conversations charged with affect enunciatewhat the film is about. When Natalia asks why she is film-ing, Chantal explains she wants to do something to showthere is no distance in the world. At the core of this filmmeditationonfinalpartings,ahyper-mediatedbeaconpulseswith an ambiguous closeness. Clearly detached from herdaughter ’ s space, Natalia takes over the computer screen,and the closer Akerman zooms on her mother ’ s blurry facethe further it disintegrates into pixels.After  No Home Movie , Akerman remarked she did notthink she could go backto the typeof filming shedid before: “ Most of my filmsweretouching on people but not in suchadirect way . . . they were more into implosion than explo-sion. ” 3 As the director films in her mother ’ s apartment, re-turning to the matrix of all of her films ’  interiors, sheembraces the directness of the home movie form to redesignanalogues for the intricate relationship of symbiosis and dis-tance between herself and her mother. This dynamic is notreducible to a simple opposition between staying or leaving.The affective map managed by Chantal Akerman, the per-son and the artist,had alwaysinvolvedatensionbetweenab-stract evocation and concrete dailyness, between chargedsilences and deeply felt and expressed emotions. Thus thefilm ’ s emotional immediacy has to be understood alongsidethe filmmaker ’ s characteristic indirection, the kitchen talksalong with the desert shots. Kitchen Talks In her long autobiographical essay  “  Le frigidaire est vide. On peut le remplir ”  ( “ The Fridge Is Empty. Let ’ s Fill It Up ” )Akerman talked about how she channeled her mother ’ s si-lence about the camps into her art. 4 It is a kitchen scene from  D ’  Est  (  From the East ,  1993 ) that sparks these associations. At a kitchen in Moscow [a woman drinks] . . . a cup of teawith a funny little smile while listening to the music. Shewould also have things to tell, but I ’ d rather not [ask] . . .probably she would have answered as my mother did.  “ I ’ ddo whatever, Chantal, but don ’ t beg me to tell stories, I ’ d gomad. ”  I didn ’ t want to push it any further so I didn ’ t. So Itook over and began to obsess. Silently, or singing, or laugh-ing . . . as in my first film . . . It ’ s not me but my image orsomethingofthesortthatgoesmadwhilewaiting.Butwait-ingforwhat?Icouldhavestoppedthere.Ising,IdanceIeatI clean and I blow myself up. But no, cinema had alreadyhooked me.  Both  like a freedom and a sort of slavery. 5 This ruminative text ties content, form, and process toimages of implosion and explosion. The  “ both ”  that givespsychological depth to her obsession with making films alsoanimates her aesthetics in a fertile oscillation between dramaand banality, between minor expressions and broader histor-ical currents. Her personal story accounts for the root of   D ’  Est ’ s layered silence; it also explains both the explosive de-spair that leads her  Saute ma ville  (  Blow Up My Town ,  1968 )character from silence to song to blowing herself up  and   thefilmmaker ’ s pressing need for cinematic expression.As is clear from  Jeanne Dielman,  23  , quai du Commerce, 1080  Bruxelles  (  Jeanne Dielman,  23  Commerce Quay,  1080  Brussels ,  1975 ), the first object to test the filmmaker ’ s creativeautonomy was the protected albeit suffocating space of themother ’ s houseandits silences. 6 It was inher parents ’ kitchenthat Akerman filmed  Saute ma ville,  and throughout herwork it is in a room apart, but adjacent to her mother ’ s space, Chantal and Natalia ’ s Skype conversations. 62  FALL 2016  that the filmmaker and her characters performed rituals of order and disorder, as if carrying out a continuous aestheticexperiment. At times, as in  Demain on déménage  ( TomorrowWe Move ,  2004 ), the need to separate from the mother is theexplicit theme of the film; at others, as in  Je tu il elle  ( 1974 ),the distinctions between closing oneself off and creating arepurposefully tangled.  “ And I left, ”  states Akerman in theopening of the film, proclaiming the creative escape that ispossible for the artist even as they move inside a room.Akerman dealt with explicit autobiographical materialby de-dramatizing it or by distributing such referencesonto separate tracks, visual and aural, temporal and spa-tial. The disjunction and designed obliviousness betweenthe realities of the mother ’ s letters and the New York lo-cations that stand for a present from which the filmmakerdaughter  “ speaks ”  in  News from Home  ( 1977 ) have made itone of Akerman ’ s strongest articulations of a bipartitestructure that conveys, without simplifying, the tangle of closeness and distance between mother and daughter thatruns through her work.Two of her earlier small-scale films come even closer toilluminating what Akerman might intend by the directnessand indirection, implosion and explosion, deployed in  No Home Movie . One is  Là-bas  (  Down There ,  2006 ), a filmwhose explicit subject matter is a problematic reference tohome and to Israel, which is in fact the occluded referent of   No Home Movie ’ s mysterious desert images. The other is  Aujourd  ’  hui, dis-moi  ( Tell Me ,  1980 ), a film on Jewish grand-mothers, where Akerman ’ s identity as the daughter of aHolocaust survivor is for the first time presented.Here as well, another utterly simple and oblique setup isdevised to channel autobiographical revelation. 7 Akerman isshown visiting with three older Jewish ladies to talk abouttheir mothers who had died in the Holocaust, but the filmstarts with Chantal ’ s offscreen conversation with Nataliaabout her mother who died in Auschwitz and Natalia ’ sgrandmother who raised her when she returned an orphanfrom the camps. Exiling her personal story to intermittentbits of the sound track, Akerman replicated one of her typi-cal strategies in binding the personal to the collective, in ar-ticulating her story through that of others.Under the pretext of a generation-based testimonial,the film accumulates multiple registers of the personal, in-cluding the peculiar enactment of a compliant, surrogategranddaughter ’ s visit. The last and longest visit hints atthe manner in which the filmmaker ’ s full and attentivepresence in the room, both as interviewer and listener, isas relevant to the film ’ s power as the indirect, offscreen al-lusions to Akerman ’ s history. Dressed up for the occasionin a red cardigan, an older lady adamantly promises to tellmore stories but only if Chantal eats. Her stories reachinto the shtetl, into descriptions of her grandmother ’ s leg-endary beauty and her mother ’ s gayness and ability to sew.When Akerman asks, she sings three Yiddish songs. Inthe separately filmed counter-shots, Akerman complieswith her side of the bargain, slowly eating from a daunt-ing tray of cakes. In this succinct version of the basic pre-text of the film, survival via food and memory, the olderwoman adopts Chantal as a granddaughter for a day,pleading for one more meal, a dinner, during which theexhausted filmmaker falls asleep on camera, as both eatside by side facing an offscreen TV.Critic Adam Roberts pinpointed the stakes of this feed-ing rite, noting that  “ Chantal is taking communion onwhat is left of the Jewish table. ” 8 Indeed, from this filmon, Akerman became increasingly aware of how her per-sonal history as a second-generation Holocaust survivorthreads through and drives all of her work. 9 Starting with  D ’  Est , a felt analogy with Jewish history, never explicit inthe work, animates the filmmaker ’ s protracted interestin terrains of displacement, fraught histories of exile andracial discrimination. In  Sud   ( South ,  1999 ) and  De l  ’  autre côté   (  From the Other Side ,  2002 )  ,  her subjects talk and shelistens. As in  Dis-moi,  long pauses and silences push theviewers into sustained negotiations of their own associa-tions and projections. 10  No Home Movie  presents the primal script of the autobio-graphical litany that had become increasingly explicit in theartist ’ s statements and filmed self-portraits. It also fore-groundsChantal ’ sintenseidentificationwithhermother.Thefilm ’ sconversationsinparticulararestrikinglyelemental,pro-vidinganotherregisterbywhichtograsptheartist ’ stransmu-tation of personal life into her films ’  overlong and redundantdialogues. Here, in her last film, we actually hear the impos-sibly stretched and repeated goodbyes and terms of endear-ment that so elegantly hang over  News from Home . At thekitchen table, Chantal spouts clichés to her mother as if to achild: “ meatisprotein,itbuildsmuscles...thepotatoskinhasvitamins. ”  She mouths Hebrew blessings with her mother totest  her  memory.And they trade long-repeated family anecdotes: how herfather stopped observing the  shabbat  once the grandfatherdied; how fooled  we  were by staying in Belgium in  1938 ;howpretty  she was; how proud  she was pushing the carriage;how proud  she  was holding her beautiful mother ’ s hand go-inghomefromschool.IrefrainfromdistinguishingbetweenNatalia and Chantal here because this symbiotic conflation,so apparent in this film, had itself already become part of  FILM QUARTERLY  63  Akerman ’ s art, most flagrantly in her novel  Une famille à Bruxelles  (  A Family in Brussels ,  1998 ).That such simple exchanges happen within this apart-ment, the locus of all of Akerman ’ s ruminative thoughts,confirms this film ’ s astonishing accomplishment: to return tothe source of one ’ s art, to maintain its everyday integrity, andto shape still yet another perfect film. In Perspective, the Desert Akerman completed  No Home Movie , along with the two in-stallations,  De la Mèr(e) au desert  (  From the sea/mother to the desert ) and  Now , during the eighteen months between hermother ’ sdeathandherowninOctober 2015 . 11 Akermanhadbeen about to leave for the Israeli desert when her motherdiedinApril 2014 .Whenshecamebackwiththedesertfoot-age, she asked her editor, Claire Atherton, to organize alsotheimagesshehadshotofhermother.Morethanforty-hoursof footage, collated from various sources — phones, SD cards,computer, and her digital camera — were edited down to sixhours.Unlikeallofherpreviouswork,theeditingprocessdidnot start sequentially from a first shot. 12 Instead Akermanand Atherton immersed themselves in the material, quitesimply, in Atherton ’ s words,  “ being around her mother. ” 13 The footage had not been shot with a finished film in mind,but Akerman handed the materials over to Atherton, sayingsimply,  “ we may be able to do something with it. ”  Their si-multaneous process of making  Now  and  No Home Movie  isinstructive about the significance of the mysterious exteriorsintercutting the familial interiors in  No Home Movie .In  Now,  the desert footage seen in  No Home Movie  as wellas its jarring sounds of wind gain topical urgency throughadditionallandscapeimagesaswellasacacophonyofjudder-ing sounds, explosions, ululations, sirens, and animal cries. Inits installation design, five screens project hurtling desertviews: bluffs of red rocks, crumbling stone walls, and differ-ent horizons stream by in distinct speeds and color. As onemoves toward the middle fifth screen, digital static shootsdown, amplifying the emotional and sensorial chaos.  Now  was meant to combine the  “ infinitely small and theenormously large ”  and  No Home Movie  likewise balancesthese extremes with great sensitivity. Living within the film-maker ’ s same  “ hard drive, ”  these two sets of images — oneambitiously geared to the expression of explosive world con-flicts, the other focused on daily routines shared by daughterand mother — confirm how much of the artist ’ s psychic andartistic economy depended on a push-pull dynamic betweenthe mother and the world. 14 Open to multiple readings,  No Home Movie ’ s titlespeaks of exile, the existential Jewish condition that propelled Natalia and Chantal in the kitchen in  No Home Movie. 64  FALL 2016
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