We have gathered here to accompany Chantal Akerman to this place that in Hebrew we call bet hashayim – “the house of the living”. This name can seem paradoxical for a cemetery
And yet, it is not a euphemism. It is not a refusal to speak about death. Nor is it a desire to act as if death did not exist. Rather, it is the awareness that we must speak here about the life of those who have left us, that we must also recognise here, of all places, that life and death do not inhabit separate realms.
This may appear counter-intuitive: we are so used to speaking of life and death as if they should avoid entering into any contact with one another, as if the two should be kept at a distance, hermetically separated from each other. But reality is very different. And in this place, each one of us becomes aware that life and death can sometimes strangely co-exist.
Furthermore, some people have no need of cemeteries, and know this as if by instinct, almost from birth. As if life and death, vivacity and morbidity, had always held a dialogue at the core of their being.
It seems to me that Chantal was one of these people, those who know, no matter how alive they are, that death sometimes has its turn to speak within themselves, that it haunts their dreams, their projects, and leaves its mark on them.
I believe that Chantal always knew this, from her early childhood. This is what her sister Sylviane told me. She was a slightly different child, a special child. A child who, from a young age, suffered from nightmares. The child of a survivor. The child born after the catastrophe that we call the Shoah A dark moment for humanity that she carried within her, everywhere she went.
This is how, perhaps, the young girl, and then the young woman, learnt to live with her family’s ghosts, and the ghosts of a lost world. The ghosts of Tarnów in Poland, the ghosts of Auschwitz where her mother and many other family members were interned. The ghosts who then moved with her to Belgium, and came at night to a little girl born just afterwards.
She was the inheritor of all this. A strange welcome gift into the world. But also the inheritor of the family treasures, which we should also speak about. She was the granddaughter of a talented woman who painted and drew, and whose notebooks she kept, granddaughter also of a synagogue cantor with a magnificent voice. God alone knows whether the musicality of Chantal’s films owed something to him.
And then, above all, she was the daughter of Jacques Yavov Akerman, and the daughter, the mirror, of Natalie “Nelly” Akerman, her mother, who right until the end inhabited all of her creations.
Yes, of course, how can we not speak of your mother, dear Sylviane, of what she meant to Chantal, of her passing a year and a half ago, and of the manner in which Chantal may not have found a way to truly survive her.
On the silence of your mother, Chantal placed images, thousands of images, which, in her autobiographic book, she called “noise on silence”.
And through these images, she has strangely recreated a world. A world that passes through precise places and gestures, like those of Delphine Seyrig who, in Jeanne Dielman, almost to the millimetre, repeats the hand movements that go to making your aunt’s Wiener Schnitzel. Mimicry, intonation…
So many precise, meticulous gestures and places that say better than any words what loss is, what absence is, what the vertiginous void of grief is.
How to speak of the void? How to speak of loss? Or rather, who will speak of it better than Chantal? How to make presence be, in fact, the constant reminder of absence? Chantal chose to respond to this metaphysical question through her filmmaking, through her œuvre, which many of you will speak about better than I can.
If you listen to the titles of her films, they often refer to a strange dialogue between presence and absence, the impossibility of settling down, of putting down roots somewhere.
Saute ma ville, Demain on déménage (Tomorrow We Move), or the very last film screened in New York, No Home Movie, a film without a house, without a home, without any possibility of moving in.
Always being on the way, or always feeling like it. I do not know if there is anything more Jewish than this.
Chantal Akerman was profoundly Jewish, I believe. In her inquisitive ways, in her humour, her capacity to laugh and tell jokes. Even her dog Bicbic oddly resembled Kafka, in her view.
Judaism was a little everywhere. Including in her questioning of the image, the prohibition on representation uttered in the Torah, a prohibition that captivated her. In reality, what the Bible prohibits is representing something fixed, a still image, something that would have stopped moving. A priori, what the cinema does is precisely the opposite. It is a refusal of immobility, a No Home Movie that feeds a universe in motion.
I would like to say one last word before we hear from her nearest and dearests, and before we hear Chantal’s own words.
Certain among you know already that Chantal had two names. Her other name was a Hebrew name, Hanna. In fact, more precisely, in the Jewish tradition we are always called Son of Someone or Daughter of Someone. None of us exists outside of their kinship.
In Hebrew, Chantal Akerman had the following name: Hanna, Daughter of Neshama (her mother’s name) and Yaakov (her father’s name). This linking of words in Hebrew, Hanna-bat-Neshama-veYaakov, also carries another meaning in Hebrew, and forms a phrase that can be translated as follows:
Bat: that comes from
Neshama: the soul
Yaac-kov: “Ikouv”, from the same Hebrew root that signifies tortuous, sinuous.
Hanna bat Neshama veYaakov almost seems to murmur the grace of a tortured soul. Chantal had a tortured soul, through illness and the ghosts of a murdered world. But she also had grace, and the light of a brilliant life, of creativity, friendships and talent. She had the fortune to have her family by her side, to have talented and remarkable people by her side, actors, writers, editors, people who loved her.
It is now for all of you to gather around her loved ones, her sister Sylviane, Sonia and all those in mourning who are crying over her.
Sonia told me that, on her last birthday, Chantal had filmed the little party organised at the clinic before finally putting the camera down and saying: “No, now I must live and not just film.”
As if she was unable to do both. As if she had to choose. Chantal had difficulty in doing both. And so, in her memory, you must learn to do this. Learn to remember that life and death sometimes clasp each other’s hands, and that beyond her death, her life can still inspire yours, in everything you will do, perform and film.
In the words of our tradition, after the passing of a loved one: Nishmata Tzroura Bitzror Hachayim. Her life is woven into our own.
May you weave the threads of Chantal Akerman’s life into your own, lace them into your cameras, images and the cords of your instruments… May she thus rest in peace in the house of the living.