IN FOCUS: ME
A program all about “Me” suggests a few things, some of which turn out to be correct, others mistaken. This amazing program features films from the 1970s to today, ranging in approach and technique from the epistolary avant-garde of Chantal Akerman’s News from Home to the clay figurines of Rithy Pahn’s The Missing Picture. It’s an investigation into the personal filmmaking that has been transforming documentary for decades. The films all foreground the experience of the filmmaker in some way and emphasize the subjective point of view. But miraculously, these films aren’t just self-absorbed exercises in navel-gazing, as the title might also suggest. More than the first-person singular perspective that “me” implies, the personal and avowedly subjective use of this medium is actually much more about the first-person plural, making it a cinema of “we.” To focus on oneself in a film is no more an act of self-indulgence than it is in the writing of a memoir or diary, or a poem for that matter....
And yet, why shy away from the personal here? Why insist that these films have to be engaged in looking outwards towards representing “others,” to the extent that many other documentaries are? What if we were to also find room in the vast arena of documentary practice for those films that interrogate personal problems, family dynamics, relationship issues, the loss of a beloved dog? Why not make space for those films that contravene the invisible boundaries of the private, revealing the foibles, the vulnerabilities and the emotional complexities so often obscured in more polite, more distant approaches to representation? Indeed, why always maintain a distance, or perhaps more to the point, why should we be allowed to point a camera into other people’s lives and not interrogate our own? It’s the very act of self-representation and the representation of those close to us where we begin to understand the limits of the private, the bounds of the sayable, the expressive borders that circumscribe our lives.
When a filmmaker makes a film to work through his unresolved relationship with his ex-girlfriend, or her complicated yet loving relationship with her adoptive parent, or even his right to complain of a headache, aren’t they using the medium as much as a psychoanalytic device as a technological one? Isn’t there something truly interesting and revelatory about this fact? Film scholars have long been fond of engaging psychoanalysis in the service of interpreting fiction films, but this opens up a whole other dimension where the filmmaking itself is subject to analysis, as it were. While practicing without a license may be unwise, it’s still interesting to think about film as a type of psychoanalytic space—a prosthetic device that may help a filmmaker work through their deepest traumas or their most pressing conflicts. One of the early dreams of cinema was that it could become as expressive a medium as pen and paper, or paintbrush and canvas, as immediate, as reflective, as personal. Every single film included in this section is testament to the fact that all around the world, filmmakers have indeed adapted this unwieldy apparatus for the clearest expression of their innermost thoughts.
Let’s return to the claim that this type of personal filmmaking, this “cinema of me” is also always a “cinema of we.” So many of the themes developed in the films of this program manage to touch on universal themes, transcending even while displaying their own limited cultural milieu or personal preoccupations. When Pawel and Marcel Lozinski head out on their father-and-son road trip that exposes the unresolved pain in the wake of a harrowing divorce, we’re suddenly not in a car driving in Poland but in our own memories and experiences of the brokenness of nuclear families. And if we have never experienced the divorce of our parents or the loss of a family member, or the displacements and traumas of war, we’re fortunate to have these talented filmmakers using all of the creative means at their disposal to communicate something of those experiences to us.
Even when the theme couldn’t be more myopically focused, as with Viktor Kossakovsky’s Wednesday, about people born in Leningrad who share the same birthday as the filmmaker, the themes that emerge are nothing short of existential: the meaning of existence, the randomness of birth, the belief systems surrounding questions of fate are all contemplated by the quirkily untutored participants in this film. Distance, alienation, loneliness, fear of abandonment, exile and loss are themes that run through many of the films in this selection—themes that resonate well beyond the intimate concerns of the filmmaker him or herself.
Some of the filmmakers featured in this section are inveterate first-person filmmakers. Ross McEllwee, for instance, made his presence behind the camera a signature of his filmmaking practice, from the time he made Sherman’s March in 1985 right up through today. Avi Mograbi in Israel and Andrés Di Tella in Argentina are also mainly known for their first-person films. Others, like Naomi Kawase or Chantal Akerman, contribute important films in this personal vein but are better known for their fiction films. These may traverse some similar themes, but they don’t necessarily make the filmmaker’s personal story explicitly evident. Rithy Panh, for his part, has made several documentaries and a handful of fiction films, but The Missing Picture and his new film, Graves without a Name, are by far his most personal films, depicting his memories of life and death under the Khmer Rouge. For Panh, in line with the majority of the filmmakers included here, the first-person address is reserved for those films that simply couldn’t have been made otherwise. It’s much less a question of self-indulgence, and much more the urgency to communicate a complex formative experience (very often a trauma) that leads a filmmaker down this path. These are films that were burning to be made, and the experience of watching each and every one of these films forged in the furnace of the soul, makes a deep impression on us. These films aren’t easily forgotten, so come prepared to be profoundly affected.
Alisa Lebow contributed to IDFA’s focus program "Me" as senior advisor and interviewed some of the filmmakers in the program during the festival. In addition, Lebow was a member of the IDFA 2018 jury.
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INTRODUCTION FOR A SPECIAL ISSUE OF ALTYAZI ON THE WORK OF CHANTAL AKERMAN
It is with a very heavy heart that I write this introduction. Chantal Akerman is a filmmaker whose work I have loved and admired for several decades. In the many eulogies and obituaries that have come out since her untimely death on October 5th, there is one sentiment that consistently comes across: the deep and lasting impression her films have made on so many of us. Her films were not for all tastes, her unadulterated vision was too strong for some, but for those of us whom she touched, she did so in an indelible way....
Akerman was a prolific filmmaker, often working for television in between her larger projects, and always experimenting with form. She made feature length fiction films, shorts, experimental films, documentaries, and in the last 20 years, she made several forays into the world of multi-channel installations for galleries and museums. While some have tried to force her into categories, whether based on her multiple identities (Jewish, lesbian, feminist, child of holocaust survivors), her gender (female), or her filmmaking inclinations (minimalist, structuralist), these have always failed to encompass the breadth of her work and as she actively opposed any categorization other than ‘filmmaker’ in her lifetime, I believe we should respect her rightful resistance and remember her as what she was, a great filmmaker, full stop.
I was introduced to her work in a film class in 1983, where we watched her magnum opus, Jeanne Dielman: 23 quai du Commerce 1080, Bruxelles, a film she made in 1975 at the age of 24. Jeanne Dielman is an unforgettable film, not only for the experience of duration, which, at 3 hours and 45 minutes, can be challenging in the extreme, but for its bold reinterpretation of domestic time as worthy of representation, and for the unflinching directorial style. With uncompromising attention to the slow, precise, rhythms of everyday routine, the film has the structure of an inverted thriller, every bit as knuckle-whitening as a fast-paced action film, only in reverse. Few filmmakers before or since have been as brave and forthright in their cinematic language. Once you acclimatize to Akerman’s sense of timing and indeed her dry humor and off-beat sensibility, it becomes something like a drug. You seek it out in other filmmakers’ work and when you can’t find it, you turn back to her with great longing and affection. To say that Akerman was a singular voice in cinema is simply to state a fact. To place her alongside the other cinematic greats of her generation (Godard, Fassbinder, Herzog) is to redress an historical injustice, as her work is every bit as innovative and important in the history of cinema as theirs, though she remained undervalued and under-recognized to the end.
Her films are too many to mention here, but I will review what are the highlights for me in her impressive, nearly 45 year, career. Her first film, Saute ma ville, was an unstudied send-up of domesticity, the lead part played with Chaplainesque impishness by an 18 year old Akerman herself. She plays the lead in her first feature as well, the impressive Je, tu, il, elle (1974), which she made only a year before Jeanne Dielman, and while less formally ambitious, it is just as taboo-breaking and memorable in its playful expression of a young woman’s independence and desire. We see hints of the feisty mercurial lead character again in two shorts she made a decade apart, J’ai faim, j’ai froid (1984) and the bewitching Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des anées 60 à Bruxelles (1994).
Her experimental film work of the early and mid-1970s was heavily influenced by the structuralist filmmaking of Michael Snow and the personal, almost home movie, style of Jonas Mekas. Yet her original voice as a filmmaker, literally and figuratively, comes across very clearly in her New York films, News from Home and Hotel Monterrey. News from Home, in particular, takes up many of the themes we find in her later work: nomadism, the fascination with the everyday, the imbricated lives of mother and daughter, the way in which history haunts the present. The exquisitely restrained camera work of one of her early collaborators, cinematographer Babette Mangolte, is one of the highlights of this film.
Akerman went on to make 12 more feature films and half as many feature length documentaries, the most memorable for me being D’Est, a film that comprised one part of her very first museum installation, Bordering on Fiction, which premiered at the Walker Art Foundation in Minneapolis in 1995. D’Est is a return to Akerman’s extreme long takes and her interest in the quotidian, yet it is also another form of ‘return’, where she in effect retraces the steps in reverse of her parents’ exile from Eastern Europe during WWII. Shot just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is at once a study of that present moment of transition and of the traces it still bears of the past. Akerman eschews archival footage and narration, counting instead on the penetrating gaze of her insistent camera to yield the insights of history for those patient enough to watch. With this installation, she began to explicitly revisit her Jewishness, not out of any particular religious conviction, but from the weight of its history as it pressed upon her.
Not all of Akerman’s experiments were a success, and when she failed, she failed spectacularly, as with the one and only mainstream film she endeavoured, the $10 million dollar box office bust, A Couch in New York (1996), starring William Hurt and Juliette Binoche. The plot was simple enough and the characters well chosen for what was essentially a quirky romantic comedy. Yet Akerman’s irrepressible spirit forced an awkwardness and a just-off-the-mark sensibility that was too subtle for the film’s mainstream pretensions, and not pronounced enough for her experimental fan base. The film found its way to the graveyard of the cinema, where it surprised me more than once, first on an overnight bus from Bodrum to Istanbul and later on a transatlantic flight back to New York. I watched it all the way through both times, happy to be accompanied by her spirit in the unlikeliest of places. Although Akerman never worked with Hollywood again (or should I say, Hollywood never worked with Akerman again?), she did make several other relatively light-hearted features with mixed success, both before and after, such as Nuit et Jour (1991) about a woman dating two taxi drivers, one on the day shift, the other on the night shift, and Demain on déménage (2004), about a mother and daughter forced to live together after the death of the father. She also made two more weighty, and much better acclaimed, adaptations, the first of Proust’s La Prisoniere, in her La Captive (2000), and the second, of Conrad, in La Folie Almayer (2012). Akerman’s work on the whole was so intricately intertwined with her life and her sense of self that in 1997, when asked by Arte to make a filmic self portrait, she responded by making a film that, with the exception of a somewhat rambling and artless straight to camera introduction by Akerman herself, was comprised exclusively of footage from her films. In effect, she was saying, look to my films if you want to know anything about my life, it’s all there. Indeed, Akerman is one of the most personal directors we have ever encountered in the cinema, the force of her vision and personality, as well as her recurrent obsessions and tropes, form an integral part of the experience of her work. One feels, the more one gets to know her work, the better one knows her, to the point of making her death feel very much like a personal loss.
Akerman, a life-long sufferer of depression, died at her own hand, only a year after she lost her mother, a holocaust survivor whose simple life as a petit-bourgeois housewife in Brussels was at the center of inspiration for most of Akerman’s work. It’s as if with her mother/muse gone, there could be no more reason to go on. Life, for her, seems to have become unbearable. Yet I remain grateful at least, that her films remain and perhaps more than any other filmmaker I can think of, she lives on for us in her films.