This is a blog written last year (for Women’s Film and Television History Network), on the first screening of Akerman’s last film and its accompanying exhibition. Although the exhibition has finished, I hope this captures an idea of these intense films as the moving and powerful No Home Movie is released in the U.K.
The two-year retrospective of Chantal Akerman’s films, curated by Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts under the title A Nos Amours, had its last screening on Friday 30th October (2015) at the Regent Street Cinema, with her latest film No Home Movie (2015). Following Akerman’s recent tragic death, there was still a palpable sense of shock, and an appropriately emotional and dignified introduction was given by Akerman’s long-term collaborator and editor, Claire Atherton. She has been in London for the last fortnight helping to curate the NOW exhibition, the first complete showing of some of Akerman’s installation works, which is at Ambika P3, a gallery space at the University of Westminster (exhibited until 6th December 2015). Both the film and Akerman’s installation work are simultaneously revelatory and quintessentially Akerman and demand to be seen. Below, are some brief, first impressions.
The large, light space has been converted into something very subterranean and dark to suit the films’ projection and their emotion. In a mixture of single films, often with an audio commentary, and multi-screen installations, there is no single dimension, and the choices made in this report are idiosyncratic ones. In a piece entitled Maniac Summer (2009), a large-screen projects images including Akerman working in her flat, families playing outside in a park and a street scene. Along a perpendicular wall, the images appear to dissolve and deteriorate, turn to black and white, and, on the facing wall, coalesce into abstraction. Staying within that room over an extended period brings a shift in perception of time and space and a move beyond observing simple juxtapositions, and, in a very Akerman-like manner, the sheer intensity (if given time) breaks through to something much more experiential. The accompanying notes suggest this work fits with her commitment to exploring the legacy of the Holocaust: “looking for, and finding, traces, shadows, remnants” since, given the continent’s recent history: “what else should a European be sensible of?”. Her mother grew up in Poland and was imprisoned in Auschwitz, and in the work D’Est: au bord de la fiction (1995), a room is filled with rows of televisions, divided into groups of three, showing footage from Akerman’s journey across Eastern Europe. The filmmaker voices a poetic monologue in an accompanying video, about a journey through a history that no longer has a capital H.
The daughter’s relationship with the mother is everywhere in this exhibition as it is in No Home Movie (2015). During Maniac Shadows (2013), their outlines move across the beach – together and apart. Elsewhere, Akerman on screen, with the merest backlight highlighting her figure, reads from a memoir about her mother’s failing health. Her trademark warm, throaty, strongly-accented voice (pervading the whole exhibition) contributes to this piece’s emotion. And, as Akerman’s work has been concerned with many forms of grief, so this exhibition itself has become a site of loss, vividly representing her simultaneous presence and her absence.
Akerman’s mother passed away last year, and she is the central figure of No Home Movie, which also includes Akerman’s sister, Sylviane (who attended both the screening and the exhibition). Scenes capture aspects of family life with their ailing mother in her Belgian flat very realistically, with flashes of extremely relatable family tension between them. Abstract sequences from Akerman’s filmmaking travels punctuate the motionless camera witnessing daily rhythms inside the flat. Maman moves in and out of shot as does Akerman and also the home helpers; we watch the domestic routine – of course, this reminds us of Jeanne Dielman 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) but there are also echoes, here, of the relationship of News from Home (1976-7). We hear her mother’s rhythmic throat noise, an effect of old age but musical, comforting and quickly familiar. Akerman commands a multiplicity of tones: abstract, intimate, contemplative and dryly humorous. As J Hoberman says in a quote at Ambika P3, “Comparable in force and originality to Godard or Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman is arguably the most important European director of her generation”. I would like to finish with another stolen phrase from a young woman who sat next to me and cried many times during the film. She said it had shown her the dignity of being human. If only Akerman had been there, as planned, to hear the comments and sustained applause that greeted the final credits.
Although this is a film produced in Flanders, all the action is actually set in Romania – and although the film presents itself like a documentary, it is actually a carefully-scripted observational study of a real family (the 2.35:1 ‘Scope presentation also suggests a fiction film). Writer-director Teodora Ana Mihai is herself a Romanian migrant who left the country as a child, growing up in Belgium and then California before film school in New York and a return to Belgium to work in the film industry. This surprising film is her second production and has already won four international prizes, including best documentary feature at Karlovy Vary and the Toronto Hot Docs festival. New prizes are being picked up all the time.
Georgiana is a teenager as Christmas approaches in the Romanian city where she lives with her six siblings in an overcrowded flat. Although she has an older brother who is 18, it appears that Georgiana is the de facto head of household as her single parent mother is in Italy earning the money the family needs as a cook for an elderly Italian family. Georgiana is expected to look after everybody, organising shopping, cooking and cleaning – and trying to achieve the more usual teenage goals of academic success, having fun and possibly finding a boyfriend. Soon it is her fifteenth birthday and the film’s title begins to make sense when we realise that it will have been eight months of struggle when mother finally returns at the height of summer.
If this brief outline of the film’s plot suggests that this is going to be some form of ‘grim’ social realism, the reality is quite different. Somehow, Mihai manages to avoid jazzing up her story with dramatic incidents but still to make the everyday lives of the family members interesting. I confess that after the first twenty minutes or so – and feeling very tired – I thought that I might close my eyes and just let the film drift by. But that didn’t happen. Instead I gradually became more engaged with the characters and their daily struggles and minor triumphs. There are some moments of difficulty, e.g. when somebody tells Georgiana that the children should be in an orphanage, but these are faced and talked through with Mum on the phone or through a shaky video link on the computer. As the sun comes out in the spring, the children get to spend more time outside and Georgiana has more opportunity to talk to her schoolfriends about exams – and to catch the eyes of boys at the swimming pool.
The great strength of the film is seemingly down to three factors. The director clearly has a great rapport with these wonderful kids, the camerawork by Joachim Philippe is unobtrusive (and the sound is effective) and the seamless editing never draws attention to itself. This is the opposite of ciné vérité in which filmmakers provoke their subjects. Instead the camera seemingly just records the events as they unfold. The children are remarkably ‘ordinary’ – they don’t seem to play to the camera, but they do play and grouch like most children. This is a real family as explained in the director’s statement on the film’s excellent website:
. . . after many months of searching and numerous interviews, I finally met the Halmacs. Their story particularly touched me; fortunately, they agreed to share their everyday life with me and with the broader public. The Halmac kids literally claimed my empathy. Every single one of them is a real ‘character’, with a fascinating and well-defined personality that I just wanted to get to know better.
Having said that, I was of course also confronted with a crucial question: who was the main character in this story? Who was holding this family together in the mother´s absence? The answer came quite naturally: Georgiana, who was about to turn 15 when we started filming, had obviously taken over the parental responsibilities. She was the new point of reference for the rest of the siblings, despite her age.
As I started following Georgiana, I discovered an extremely strong, uninhibited teenager who accepted her new ‘head-of-the-family’ role with humility, without considering herself a victim. But she did possess the realisation that she — like the rest of her siblings — should have the right to a normal, more protected childhood.
I felt privileged to be allowed into their lives to tell their story of courage and resilience. After spending so much time together we all became like family, which gave this film its intimacy and, I believe, also its strength. Getting to know the Halmacs truly enriched my life.
At the end of the film when mother emerged from the airport to meet her children I had a tear in my eye. Waiting for August is already on screens in LA, San Francisco and New York and it is due to open in Belgium. I hope a UK distributor picks it up. At 88 minutes it’s a gem. Don’t miss it if you get a chance to see it.
The latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne has got substantial coverage in the UK press and I even heard a cogent analysis of the film on Radio 4’s ‘Thought For the Day’ religious slot last week. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at that. The film deals with a recognisable personal and social quandary and a real moral questions. At a time of austerity when seemingly everything is being ‘cut’, how would you feel if you were a worker offered the choice between receiving a bonus or instead helping a colleague keep her job? And from her point of view how would you feel about spending your weekend trying to persuade your workmates to forego their €1,000 bonus so that you can keep your job? Those are the questions that drive the film narrative. The Dardennes complicate matters further by making their central character Sandra someone trying to return to work after suffering depression. While she has been off work the boss has concluded that his workforce can cope with one less member so he has devised this diabolical choice for his non-unionised workforce. Some commentators (and audiences) have seen the additions of these details as making the narrative more contrived than it needs to be (Sandra also has an almost saintly husband who is super-supportive). The result might be that the film is less about the ‘social issue’ of a fair distribution of income and employment opportunities and more about Sandra’s ‘personal’ struggle to maintain her dignity and sense of self-belief.
A few weeks ago I introduced the film on its first weekend on release and therefore spent some time thinking about how the Dardenne brothers present themselves as filmmakers and how they are generally understood by critics, reviewers and audiences. My notes for that ‘Illustrated Talk’ are downloadable here:
My conclusion was that most commentators are too keen to try and pigeon-hole the brothers as fitting a specific category in terms of approach, styles, themes etc. Certainly all of their films since the mid-1990s have been set in their home town of Seraing in the Meuse Valley of Wallonia, the francophone region of South-Eastern Belgium, and each film focuses on one or two characters facing some kind of problem connected to a current social issue. However, the approach and the style does change and in the DVD ‘extras’ of the previous film Le gamin au vélo (The Kid With a Bike, 2010), the two brothers (who share writing, production anddirection) demonstrate how they set up certain scenes. They discuss these in some detail and explain the differences between the films in terms of how the camera is used etc. So, for instance, Sandra in Two Days, One Night is on a quest which sends her around Seraing over a weekend and we follow her – much as we follow the central character in Rosetta (1999). But the teenage Rosetta is a very different type of character to Sandra and the Dardennes’ camera follows her as if she is a soldier in a war combat film. Rosetta is a strong young woman determined to do anything to get, and keep, a job. She needs to be strong because her single parent mother is an alcoholic who threatens to drink away Rosetta’s earnings. ‘Following’ the embattled Rosetta with the camera requires a different approach to that in The Kid With a Bike in which Cyrille, in a summery Seraing, is like a character in a fairy-tale searching for his ‘lost’ father and oscillating between the ‘bad’ fairy (the local gangleader) and the ‘good fairy’ Samantha who agrees to be his foster-mother. Sandra is different again in a very physical performance by Marion Cotilard as a woman weakened by depression and medication who must find the energy and self-belief to ask difficult questions of her work-mates.
The publicity for the release of Two Days, One Night focused on the presence of Marion Cotillard as the ‘first A List star’ that the Dardennes had cast in their films. Ms Cotillard is certainly a major star of French cinema as well as appearing in major international Hollywood productions. But Cécile de France was also a major star when she accepted the role as Samantha in Le gamin au vélo. The key point is that whereas de France, a Walloon from Namur, is ‘culturally appropriate’, Cotillard was born in Paris and grew up in Orléans. She can play the role of a woman in Seraing and give it authenticity because of her skill – but this is nevertheless a change in the Dardennes’ approach. The ‘star stature’ is also important. In the clips referenced above the Dardennes discuss how they choreographed scenes and used the camera taking into account Cécile de France’s experience when working with a young non-professional on Le gamin au vélo. De France is a leading figure in the film, but not actually the central character. Marion Cotillard is the main focus of Two Days, One Night. She gives a wonderful performance but the question remains as to what extent her star persona – which includes her willingness to represent the tired and ‘worn’ working woman – is read by audiences as an element in the presentation of the narrative. Does it change the sense of authenticity? After two screenings I’m still not sure. As an exercise, it might be worth comparing Cotillard’s performance with that of Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (US 2000). The two films are very different but the issue about a star creating a character within a social realist aesthetic is worth pursuing.
The other aspect that Two Days, One Night shares with Le gamin au vélo is the emotional use of music. In the previous film a couple of very short bursts of non-diegetic classical music seem to mark moments in the emotional narrative – whereas the filmmakers have generally avoided music in their earlier films. In Two Days, One Night there are two songs heard on the car radio (i.e. diegetic). The first is Petula Clark’s 1964 French version of the Jackie DeShannon song ‘Needles and Pins’ (1963). The French title is ‘La Nuit n’en Finit Plus’ or the ‘night is never-ending’ and it allows a dialogue exchange about Sandra’s state of mind. Later, in a moment of exultation, Sandra, her husband and a workmate sing along to Van Morrison’s (lead singer of Them) anthemic ‘Gloria’ (1966). In one sense this is a strange choice of songs. Though they certainly work in context you do wonder if the Dardennes are drawing on their own teenage years rather than what might be relevant for Sandra’s generation. The point is that like the casting of Marion Cotillard the use of songs like this ‘fits’ this particular production. The Dardennes make each film very carefully. It might take years for the ideas to develop and the films have come out at regular three-year intervals. They aren’t wedded to one way of making films and that’s what makes each one of their films something to look forward to.
If you haven’t seen the film – and you really should – here’s a trailer (with the Pet Clark song):
Bradford prides itself on its programming of shorts. I’m not really a shorts fan and I do tend to neglect them, though I appreciate the importance of short filmmaking in the ecology of film production generally. BIFF 2014 featured short films in a variety of programming slots. The ‘Shine Short Film Competition’ comprised six films shown as a programme twice and individual entries shown before the main feature elsewhere in the programme. I saw only two of the six, one of which, Cadet (Belgium 2013) won the prize (report to follow). I didn’t see any of the Sydney Underground Shorts which screened before the late night horror films in the ‘Bradford After Dark’ programme. (I couldn’t watch the late-night films as there is no all-night public transport to get me the nine miles home.) I only saw one of the Charles Urban early scientific films – these too had a separate programme.
I did see most of the ‘Cinetrain: Russian Winter’ films that were dotted across the main programme. This funded production programme invited international filmmakers to make films about communities in Northern Russia during the ferocious Russian winter. It’s an interesting project with information available on its website. Bradford showed all seven films which attempted to explore “the most common stereotypes about Russia”. These include excessive drinking, open-air bathing in the depths of winter, traditional Russian crafts etc. I was most intrigued by the village dwellers in one community who complained about the disintegration of local community/collectivist spirit. They viewed the new capitalist Russia with mistrust and felt that today people steal from each other to get by when they used to help each other. That’s a side of the new Russia that doesn’t get as much media attention as it should.
Other than these separate programmes, each of the ‘official features’ was also accompanied by an appropriate short film. I confess that under pressure with several screenings on the same day I sometimes missed the short on purpose to give myself a few extra minutes of breathing space. I’ll just pick out one other short (some are mentioned alongside the feature screenings). The one that impressed me most (i.e. appealed to my interests) was Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) directed by Arnar Gudmundsson. This tells a complete and satisfying story about two brothers – a genuine ‘Nordic noir’ – on their farm (see the still above) in 15 minutes of skilled narrative filmmaking. I wasn’t surprised to learn about its success at festivals worldwide.