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Chantal Akerman | The International Symposium

The Kunsthistorisches Seminar and the Seminar für Medienwissenschaft of Basel University, in collaboration with the Eikones Forum Basel and the Stadtkino Basel, have organized an international symposium on Chantal Akerman’s cinema one year after her death. Several of her films were screened and many aspects of her artistic works were studied and discussed.

We recorded Claire Atherton’s introduction to the screening of Akerman’s «Là bas», and the Q&A that has followed with Ute Holl, where Atherton spoke about her editing work with Akerman and reflected on important aspects of Akerman’s artistic practice (the recording includes an intervention of Nicola Mazzanti, director of the Cinémathèque royale de Belgique, discussing with Atherton).

Filmexplorer was able meet Babette Mangolte, who had worked on the cinematography of many of Akerman’s films, and discuss with her about their collaboration in the seventies in New York, particularly for the film «News from Home».

Claire Atherton put it nicely: Chantal Akerman’s work is “classical”, as it remains open to many interpretations, leaving it almost useless, in her case, for any inquiry into the artist’s intentions. Akerman’s filmic practice is relatively simple, but with very few elements she is able to create cinematic experiences that touch the deepest chords of our being. The international symposium in Basel was an exceptional occasion to examine her favourite themes in depth and to go further into the interpretation of them: motherhood, Jewishness, trauma, silence, patience, death, being a woman. Here I would like to add just one more element for reflection, concerning Akerman’s decisive and almost obsessive theme of the “home”.

Brussels, Paris, New York, or Tel Aviv: Chantal Akerman’s films are there, and put these cities at the centre. At the same time, her films are largely shot indoors: from Hotel Monterey to No Home Movie, from La chambre to Là bas, and so on, her films are a long inquiry into the physical boundaries of being at home and away, and of daily life. One could easily connect this search for “a place to be” to Akerman’s Jewish identity and its self-questioning. But here I want to stress a specific aspect of this home-theme with two very different themes.

The first one concerns the specific visual language that Akerman develops. As Atherton told us, Akerman used to say “I take a frame” instead of “I create an image”. Framing is the creation of the image in her films. Thus, the formal structure of the image takes an important role and there is a specific aspect of the framed image that seems particularly relevant to her visual language. She uses the zoom very often to select a particular segment of the field of view, resulting in an image with a flattened depth, which gives the audience the impression that they are in front of the pure surface of things, independent of their real proportions. This flatness acts as a trigger that makes light, forms and colours emerge, as if out of nothing. One has not necessarily to refer to Clement Greenberg’s definition of modernism in art through the specific revolution of flatness (as the overcoming of the old mimetic and illusionist model in art) to understand how Akerman’s visual language plays with abstraction and the different elements of vision, giving them an independent value. In fact, her attentive work on the sound seems equally to go in the same direction: it would be reductive to say that her hypersensitive treatment of sounds, whose occurrence and loudness constantly catch our attention, is only a mean to express a situation or atmosphere. The sound itself seems to emerge as a separate element, independent of its context in relation to the image. My point is that this aesthetic approach to image and sound gives us the specific impression of losing the distance from the world, of being adherent to the naked reality. Through this flatness, the beauty and loudness of images and sounds shows us the sidereal silence of the surface of things, and the surface of a place, of home. This kind of home resembles a desert, but it is a wonderful desert, as it is a place of loneliness (in the empty rooms), and of anonymity (in the crowded cities).

I would contrast this theme of the flatness with the theme of the voice-over, and the texts. The latter are the expression of a distance, which is equally the distance between two persons, the space in their relationship, the space for communication, the space for meaning. It is interesting to see how the letters that are read aloud in News from Home express the geographical distance between Chantal Akerman and her mother and, at the same time, exercise the necessity of touching the other, the beloved. In No Home Movie, after almost forty years, the words tie the daughter and mother together again, but this time in live dialogues. Here the distance is no longer geographic, but projected in the separation they are destined to live in (becuase the mother is very old and her health is quickly declining). In any case, the texts and the voice-over always constitute a place of search and relationship, even simply the relationship with oneself.

It is the contrast with the flatness of images and sounds that makes the words stand out in a very dramatic way. We could resume this contrast in the motto vox clamantis in deserto, but in the old meaning of the prophecy of a new alliance, a new relationship. In comparison to the desert-like home of rooms and cities, the words build another home: the home of family, which is the home that is made of the intergenerational transmission of a specific culture. A culture that is made of simple gestures and the little rituals of the daily life. Flatness and distance: these are the two actors playing Akerman’s theme of the home. The non-distance and the sidereal distance of vision and hearing, and the distance between two persons, between a mother and a daughter. Her films are an elaborate exercise of these distances.

Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore | Audio/Video: Ruth Baettig
First published: October 26, 2016

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