When people are enjoying a film they say ‘I didn’t see the time go by’… but I think that when time flies and you don’t see time passing by you are robbed of an hour and a half or two hours of your life. Because all you have in life is time… With my films you’re aware of every second passing through your body.
– in Chantal Akerman, From Here, film by Gustavo Beck and Leonardo Luiz Ferreira, 2010. Another similar quote is on the French radio station: France Culture, “La Grande Table” by Caroline Broué re-broadcast 9 October, 2015
Paris, 1974. I was running femmes/films, an international women’s film fest in Paris with a friend, Esta Marshall. Chantal’s entry, Je tu il elle, struck the audience like a thunderbolt; not only was it daring but the gap between Akerman and mainstream cinema left the public grasping for firm ground. The length of the shots, their composition, the framing with a still camera, the loose narration and intimate voiceover, Chantal herself, swallowing spoonful after spoonful of powdered sugar from a paper bag; and finally the intimate, self-exposing sex scene between herself and her ex-girlfriend. We felt a new wind from Brussels.
The next day Chantal offered to show me her first short, Saute ma ville, made in 1968 when she was 18. The 400-seat Gaumont cinema was empty before 10am; both of us sat alone, watching Saute ma ville in which she again acted herself. I loved her comic irony, her black humour and her frenzied and ebullient qualities. As we walked out to the street she candidly turned to me and asked: “Don’t you think I have a presence? ” (“Tu trouves pas que j’ai une présence?”).
UNESCO decreed 1975 the “Year of the Woman”. Sensing there might be funds available, Esta Marshall and I rushed to present a project consisting of the first international symposium of women working in film. Not only filmmakers/directors, but also theoreticians, directors of photography, editors, actresses. After a first refusal, we persisted and finally got our way. A palazzo-style hotel in St. Vincent, in the Val d’Aosta mountains, awaited us. About 30 or more women from different continents turned up – Agnès Varda, Marta Meszaros, Susan Sontag, Anna Karina, Helma Sanders Brahms, and many others. Chantal was the little “kid sister”, the youngest of all and she eagerly participated in everything during four intense days and nights, including after-dinner skinny dips initiated by the Swedes which so infuriated UNESCO representatives.
A year later came Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It was hailed as a landmark film in academic circles, a canonical film for cinephiles and often cited amidst the “top 50 films ever”. What, she asked, could she do at age 25 after an oeuvre like that?
Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector expressed similar anxieties when she caused a furore with her first book, Near To The Wild Heart (1943), for which she was acclaimed as one of the great masters of twentieth-century Brazilian prose. “I was scared by what you said,” she wrote to her friend, author Lucio Cardoso, “… I feel like tearing it up in order to get my freedom back: it’s horrible to already be complete.”
While Jeanne Dielman was often mentioned as a film unfolding in real time, Chantal corrected this: it was recomposed time that gave us the feeling of being locked into a Brussels housewife’s apartment for three days. Seeing the film’s making of, shot by Sami Frey (Autour de Jeanne Dielman published on DVD by Carlotta Films in 2007), you realise that it is pure Akerman time. She sits with Delphine Seyrig, looking at her watch, instructing: “now you sit for 25 seconds”.
As a film programmer I have showed her films in different countries; during the late ‘70s it was often in the context of women’s film festivals. We became good friends. Unexpected meetings occurred in different cities with Paris and Israel as recurrent places on our agendas. Every time Chantal had a new film, I programmed it in my section of the Jerusalem Film Festival; she enjoyed showing her films there, was well taken care of and the audiences appreciated her. She, however, was quite impatient with audiences. She had zero tolerance for foolishness and could be brusque. One can witness this in her last Locarno press meeting (You Tube).
Her visit to the 2014 Jerusalem festival was the most meaningful. She gave us a taste of the installation she had been commissioned to do for the 2015 Venice Biennale, projecting her work in a grotto-like space at the Hansen House. This building had been a 19th century leper’s hospital built of large blocks of beige Jerusalem stone, with a spacious unkempt rambling garden. The images she showed us were long travelling shots of the arid, windy Negev Desert that she had filmed a few months before, projected onto the stones. The sound track was raw, punctuated by explosive, rough noise conveying the violence of war. With hindsight I now wonder whether it wasn’t as much the clamour of sounds she heard in her head at the time, after her mother’s death.
Providing a welcome counterpoint, in the quiet seclusion of that dimly-lit garden, Chantal read softly to us at nightfall, in French, chapters of Ma mère rit, her last book. There were only some 30 people there, an intimate event for those who didn’t mind going to a book reading in the midst of film festival furore. We listened, transported, conscious of the fact that it was such a rare and poignant moment.
She sometimes referred to herself as a female Charlie Chaplin. I found her closer to Stan Laurel or Mr Magoo, in her clumsy encounters with everyday objects and practical matters. In her interview with Elisabeth Lebovici for the Italian Mousse magazine, in 2011, she said, “I can’t have actresses playing my clumsiness.” We once met in New York at her friends’ apartment where she was staying. As I was leaving, she decided to come out with me for a smoke. As soon as the door closed behind us she realised she had just locked herself out. Those were the pre-cellphone era days and finding a friendly neighbour to call a locksmith was not easy. Her close friends were often requisitioned to find solutions to her practical problems. These ranged from someone to assist her with picking up a few suitcases in Brussels and bringing them back to Paris by car or finding an available apartment in another city. I was happy to help get the apartment from which she shot Là-bas in Tel Aviv. On her first night there, a bomb exploded practically at her doorstep. Worried friends and family called all night but she didn’t answer her phone; after taking a sleeping pill she slept soundly through the detonation, the police sirens, ambulances and general brouhaha. When I first watched Là-bas I couldn’t help smiling as the film’s narration progressed. In a way I felt responsible for all the wine glasses she had broken in that apartment but could not replace, the last loaf of home-made bread she stole from the freezer because she was hungry but unable to leave the flat, and her other daily misfortunes.
Her emails were terse but affectionate: “How are you? Everything ok here. PS: Think of my cousin”. That was for a young cousin who was going to study in Jerusalem for a year. I managed to find him a place at a friend’s and she was really pleased. Could we find her an artist’s residence in Tel Aviv so she could develop a new project? Her flight schedule changed and she needed to leave from Moscow, not from Paris, could we change that? And repeatedly: “I lost my phone book again with all the contacts” or “I mistakenly erased your number and several others from my cell. Please send again.” There were also innumerous trips on the Paris–Brussels train without her passport or any ID. The train conductor would then have to call the French Consulate or the Belgian Embassy to sort things out. Her French emails were comically peppered with a few words of Polish and a few of Russian. She played with her name, using Chantakerman, since she loved to sing. It was puzzling (around 2008) to see her sign “Hannah Akerman” for quite a while.
“I was born as an old baby, in 1950”, she said. Birth of a wunderkind, a wanderer, a wonderer and writer. She brought us her acute view, her unmistakable voice, and left us her art and much more as comfort.