by Ben Diamond
I’ve already tackled a holocaust-themed documentary before on these pages – the more direct Night Will Fall – but here is something altogether different. No Home Movie is a slow, thoughtful documentary about Chantal Akerman’s mother, Nelly Akerman, nearing the end of her life. I was aware of Chantal Akerman’s work only through her 1975 three-and-a-half-hour epic Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, but I could draw parallels between the two, in particular the presence in both films of brutally drawn out still-frame long takes, which force the viewer to go through a sort of protracted inner monologue, and at the same time try to work out what these silent pauses mean for the filmmaker. In the 40 years since Jeanne Dielman, Akerman appears to have kept her edginess, and her ability to challenge audiences. It even crossed my mind to directly consider Nelly as a real-life Jeanne Dielman, especially as Chantal appears to have been heavily influenced, if not defined, by her mother, and her mother’s past. Is it just me, or was there something in the kitchen tiles, reminiscent of that 1975 apartment?
Not much about the holocaust is revealed when Chantal talks to Nelly. The one piece of concrete information is that Nelly and her husband escaped Poland and arrived in Belgium, only to be recaptured and sent back to Poland, where the horrors of Auschwitz awaited them. And that’s about it in terms of directly related holocaust conversation in No Home Movie. The rest is done through introspection and insinuation. Chantal Akerman chooses to largely be absent in the film, as she is either behind the camera, with her back to the camera, or obscured by an object in the apartment when she chooses to create an impromptu mise-en-scène with objects having the effect of naturally occurring points of abyss in Nelly’s apartment. Akerman is most present in the film when she’s behind the camera, crafting disturbing ambient-visual metaphors, such as long takes in the car, out of the window, of desolate Oaklahoman landscapes (reflecting the vicissitudes and the disquiet of her own mind), or running round Nelly’s apartment at night, with the lights off, Nelly out of the frame, desperately trying to retrace her steps and find something, or recapture something. The apartment space itself is turned into a memory vortex with its own warping qualities, the air thick with nostalgia, but also stifling, as we are reminded with a long take chronicling Nelly’s respiratory problems, the pathology her demise already being mapped out. In another shot Chantal simply gazes into a body of water. Still waters run deep.
I see the film as an extended goodbye to her mother. She says goodbye over and over when they finish their Skype conversations, or when either Nelly or Chantal leave the apartment. These goodbyes often take minutes because each time is as if they are saying goodbye forever. When Nelly is led out of the apartment by her carer, and Chantal is left their on her own, it felt like the grim reaper had come to finally lead Nelly away and finally separate the two. By the end of the film I realised how often they’d been saying goodbye to each other throughout. Is this film Chantal Akerman’s way of letting go? By erasing herself from her documentary and instead focusing on her mother, is she in fact saying: this is who made me; this is who I really am? I was reminded of WG Sebald’s novels in that the holocaust always present but rarely spoken about, explored instead through trauma and metaphors, scarred landscapes. At one point Nelly’s condition is obliquely explained away by and off-screen interlocutor thusly: ‘She’s that way because of the holocaust’. Need we any further direct storytelling? Much more interesting to explore the everyday, and the effects the holocaust have had on the quotidian and mundane.
Of course, Chantal Akerman – directly, indirectly, whatever – is, or was, saying goodbye to us as well. This is her last film. Her mother died after this film was made, and Chantal took her own life a few weeks ago. The screening, scheduled by A Nos Amours, was due to be the crowning piece at the end of a 2-year complete retrospective of Akerman’s massive, and massively influential, body of work. Akerman herself was due to be there for a post-screening Q+A. Tragically, that was not to be. It was good to see so many Akerman devotees in the audience – the event was sold out. An exhibition of Chantal Akerman’s video installation work is currently on at the P3 gallery and runs from 29 October to 6 December – http://www.p3exhibitions.com/.
People think it’s easy to point a camera at a landscape and shoot a static bit of footage and call it art. With Chantal Akerman – it really fucking was art, though. There is something wholesome and truthful about landscapes. Her conversations with Nelly are edited and allude to greater truths, but landscapes cannot hide anything – their truth is evident in every pixel onscreen, gloriously unedited, a visual stream-of-consciousness. I loved the long, still takes which bookended the film. The opening is simply of a tree blowing in the wind. So much meaning in such a simple metaphor. I can’t really describe one of the final long takes of the film, except to say that after puzzling over it for several minutes, it came to uncannily resemble another troubled landscape of sorts – the one on the cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures LP. I don’t quite understand how much depth, both visually and in terms of meaning, Akerman managed to squeeze into a 2D image. But she does. Over and over again. In another take, a bucolic setting is in the foreground. A city, barely recognisable, hovers at the top of the frame. As if to say – ‘forget about where the people are. All you need to know about what I’m trying to say is right here.’
Chantal Akerman – 6 June 1950 – 5 October 2015