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A Woman’s Work: A Conversation with Babette Mangolte

The acclaimed cinematographer of classic films by Chantal Akerman discusses her early life in New York and working with the filmmaker.
Babette Mangolte
Babette Mangolte. © Fleur van Muiswinkel 
If the name Babette Mangolte doesn’t ring with the same familiarity as such storied French cinematographers as Raoul Coutard and William Lubtchansky, it’s not for lack of innovation or accomplishment. Born in Montmorot in 1941, Mangolte moved to New York in 1970 following a number of years as an assistant cinematographer and apprentice to director Marcel Hanoun. There she quickly integrated herself into the city’s burgeoning experimental cinema scene, befriending luminaries such as Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage, and soon after met a 20-year-old Chantal Akerman whom she proceeded to collaborate with on a series of groundbreaking works throughout the mid-70s. Influenced as much by structuralism as the films of the French New Wave, Mangolte and Akerman deftly utilized time and space as cinematic conduits to visually articulate themes of dislocation, alienation, and female autonomy. Their most celebrated work, the landmark feminist dispositif Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) took the routine tasks and mundanity of the feminine domestic experience and elevated them into a devastatingly pointed portrait of a sociologically prescribed existence. At the same time, in such contemporaneous films as Hotel Monterey (1972) and News from Home (1976), the pair’s radical integration of personal experience into rigid formalist frameworks would quietly expand notions of how nonfiction cinema could look and communicate.
Before a recent panel discussion in Los Angeles about her work with Akerman hosted by MUBI and the Women Under the Influence organization, Mangolte sat down to discuss her early life in New York, her relationship with her long-time friend and collaborator, and details of their unique working method.  

NOTEBOOK: You moved to the U.S. from France in 1970. Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to leave France, and what your impressions of New York were when you first arrived? 
BABETTE MANGOLTE: You know, New York at the time, especially downtown, was deserted. There was a lot of crime, and for me, I wasn’t going there because it was a crime or drug infested city—absolutely not! I was going there because I was very interested in seeing experimental films, which I knew were produced there and were distributed there by Jonas Mekas—I had heard about the Film-makers’ Co-op. And I had seen certain films that had been collected by Jonas and shown by Jonas in his cinematheque. But very few of those films were available in Paris. I was interested in other types of films than the ones that were coming out of the French film industry. I kind of knew after two years of doing assistant work that I wanted be a cinematographer, and it would be very difficult for me to do so in France. I had been able to get training, but that was almost miraculous. I couldn’t get significant work to sustain my living expenses, so after film school, which I left in 1966, I learned how to do editing, and that’s how I was eventually employed. When your situation seems to be blocked, or denied—blocked solely on the ground that you’re a woman and not a man—you cannot face that situation every day—it’s defeating. You have to go somewhere else.  
But I went to film school because I was interested in and wanted to see films—not necessarily interested in making a living making films, but interested in just looking at films. Like you, as a film critic, all you want to do is see films and that’s all you’re interested in. I felt that if I couldn’t make a living at making films, at least I could see films I couldn’t see any other way. I knew people who could introduce me to Jonas Mekas, who I met the very day after I arrived. I met Michael Snow that day and Stan Brakhage. They were the people whose films I wanted to see. I wanted to see Wavelength (1967). I wanted to see films by Brakhage, which I had heard about but never seen. And I saw their films the first week I was in New York.  
Now, three days after I arrived, I was downtown and someone snatched my purse and took a third of my money. I think I had $100 with me, which is a lot since I had come only with $300, and I wanted to stay for three months. That was really shocking. But then something miraculous happened, which is a very New York thing. The bag had been a gift from a friend of mine, a musician. And in the bag was the address of the person I was staying with in the Upper Westside. And the bag was returned to that address, and I was there when it was returned. My address book and money were gone, but the bag had apparently been left on the street by a garbage can on 4th Avenue South, an area which at that time was practically deserted. So I saw this as a sign, that there was some human quality to life in New York. And I was tough and I wasn’t afraid. In a way I flourished. And that’s American life for you—it’s full of contradictions.   
NOTEBOOK: So you went to New York thinking you’d be there only a few months and  then you never left? 
MANGOLTE: Not quite. I stayed almost 9 months but because my job in New York was stopping for the summer, I found a cinematography job in August in Paris and so I went back for that in France. Since April 1971 I had moved to an apartment, a two bedroom with a large living room that was actually cheaper than my hotel, which was already very cheap! So I decided to keep the lease under my name while working back in Paris and sublet to a student for the summer. I wasn’t sure at that point if I would come back to New York, but when my mother died two weeks later I went back, I thought, “I’m not staying in Paris.” So I buried her, did my first film as a DP and went back in September to New York, which was an amazing discovery. My second stay was much better than my first. People there felt a responsibility to create their own community because so few people were there. But everyone that was around had similar interests—they wanted to do serious theater, and serious art. Being serious, as well as being feminist, was very important then. So you help other women—like this group [Women Under the Influence] is trying to do here in a more corporate context, which is the condition today, but which didn’t then exist. It was all about personal commitment and a lot of free labor. You were doing things to help somebody without thinking of being paid. There was a distinction in New York at the time that I really loved: You’d have your job to pay your living expenses, and you’d have your work, which is what you were doing for free. So your work, if you were an actor, would be to act for somebody else. For me, it was to do photographs, or, hypothetically, film.  
So when Chantal Akerman arrived in New York I worked for her to help a young woman wanting to do films. Chantal was a director in search of a cameraperson. She called me in New York in October 1971. Chantal had just arrived in New York. While she was in Jerusalem earlier, she had asked Marcel Hanoun, the filmmaker who had trained me, if he knew anyone in New York that she should seek out. And he said “Yes, I have a former assistant of mine who’s in New York now. She’s really good. You should meet her. She’s a very nice woman.” And so on. Chantal called me in New York because of Hanoun’s reference. That’s how we met. And we became friends. And obviously she had no money, so I did all my camerawork for her that first year for free. I also had the use of a free camera because I had been recommended by Annette Michelson for work with Yvonne Rainer, who was looking for a filmmaker to shoot her first feature film. Yvonne asked Robert Rauschenberg, who owned an Arriflex S camera, if she could borrow his camera and I used it all through 1972 to shoot Chantal’s La chambre and also Yvonne’s first feature, Lives of Performers. I shot my first film on a 35mm Arriflex camera in ’64. 16mm film was all women could afford at that time. That’s that concept of work again—borrow and share equipment. Being a cameraperson was my work. Helping another woman do a film was what I considered my work. That’s why I find the distinction between job and work so interesting. My life was really defined by an economic crisis. New York permitted people with no money and hardly any possibility to make money to artistically thrive. 
NOTEBOOK: So you’re in New York, you’re meeting all these artists you’ve admired from afar, and then you meet Chantal. Do you remember how your cinematic partnership started?
MANGOLTE: Well, it’s interesting. La chambre was the first film we completed, and again, it was because of the influence of Michael Snow. In February 1971 Michael Snow had finished La région centrale, and Chantal and I saw it at the Elgin Theater in New York. It started at noon and finished at midnight—the film would screen non-stop. It’s about three-and-a-half hours long, but you could come and go on one ticket. You could actually smoke inside the movie theater at that time, but we still went out once or twice to shake up our legs. But we both stayed for the whole twelve hours. The film is very hypnotic and seductive. You don’t want to leave it. The camera is constantly moving, sometimes very slowly, sometimes a bit faster. But the tempo is not regular. It’s unpredictable. There’s no way you can use your memory, really. You understand the system very quickly, but you can never anticipate the next section, whether it will be long or short. So you always have that expectation. You don’t want to interrupt the movement!  
After that we kept talking about how wonderful the film was, about the abstraction of it. And a couple of weeks after, Chantal found a sublet, an apartment on Spring Street in Soho. It was just one room with a sink and bathtub and windows on each side, East and West. And when I went to visit her I said, “Let’s do a kind of Michael Snow lookalike.” So we did it, observing when and where the light was coming in. It was the end of February, so the sun was pretty low on the horizon, and it would flow directly into the room at a certain time in the morning. We had two rolls—400 feet, eleven minutes each. And we did the movement twice. I had of course prepared to make sure it was smooth. I had to walk around the camera, which was very complicated. I just had a regular tripod. And I used a mirror to send back some light, to fill in the direct sunlight. So it was an improvised homage to Michael Snow. I prepared my camera work and light in one day––I knew the exact time of the day when the sunlight was entering the room, and the next day we shot. Chantal never told me what she was going to do while lying in bed. I discovered it when the camera was rolling. One week after I visited Chantal in her sublet, the film was done.
NOTEBOOK: How did she describe to you the concept for Hotel Monterey
MANGOLTE: For Hotel Monterey she had a simple idea: She wanted to show the people who were there. I perfectly understood what she wanted to do, because it was the kind of place I had lived in during the first year I was in New York. It was a hotel for transients, and very low income people—mostly old people who were on social security and basically dying in those rooms. Each space had two rooms and one shared bathroom, and through the bathroom, if the door was kept open, you heard coughing—the old people there were often dying of emphysema—this elaborate sound of air not going through someone’s lungs. That sound is really what I remember about the hotel. But before we started, Chantal told me something about the hotel: that the people there often leave their doors open because they want to see people passing by. They don’t necessarily want to engage in conversation, but they are so lonely that they don’t want to be alone in their room. And I thought that was such a great image. That’s all she had to tell me and I was committed.
Chantal was not very technical, but she explained to me this concept of duration and I thought we should try and shoot things that weren’t just ten minutes. And we need to have a camera that doesn’t make noise. So we had to shoot with a sync-sound camera. We couldn’t use the Arriflex again since people would have known we were shooting, because the camera was very noisy. So the only concept was that it would be set and shot over a continuous night and it would be shot like a documentary, where we don’t stage things. She did know some people in the hotel who we could ask to leave a door open or who would allow us to put some lights up. And she was also very fascinated by the elevator—there are obviously many shots in the film of the elevator. It was an important location in order to show the access of communication in the building—plus it’s the only place where you meet people if you tend to live as a solitary person.
NOTEBOOK: Was there an effort to expand on this concept of duration with Jeanne Dielman, the next film you collaborated on?
MANGOLTE: It came about very differently. Initially the script for her upcoming film was inspired by a film by Jean-Luc Godard that we very much admired called 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her [1967]. Chantal wrote a script, not exactly like Godard’s but about two women, and when she sent it to me in New York, I wrote back saying that it felt too reminiscent of Godard. By then I already knew Delphine Seyrig would be in the film, as Chantal had met her in fall 1973. Chantal and I greatly admired [Alain Resnais’] Muriel [1963], and we talked about how great is was to have Delphine, who was principally a theater actress and had a great sense of stylization, to play the part of a housewife and to valorize women’s gestures. That was a key factor.
NOTEBOOK: Was the goal to make something more ambitious, not only durationally but also thematically?
MANGOLTE: To focus on one woman who is in every shot certainly made the film more abstract and avoids any plot. Chantal is a writer, principally. She conceptualized the film not in visual terms but in narrative terms. And she realized that Jeanne as the sole character made a more compelling story. Chantal told me that she had scrapped the second woman from the story in fall 1974. And she had gathered a little bit of funding for the film. The idea was to have, as much as possible, only women working on the film, and everyone would be paid the same. Obviously Delphine, Chantal, and me would be working more than the crew members, but that was not relevant. This was something that happened on many women’s film productions from this period. Chantal had met Delphine in 1973 after a screening of Chantal’s films I had shot in New York with her. Delphine Seyrig knew the New York film scene and she was instrumental in helping women film projects since the late 1960s. 
Chantal and I had been working together before Jeanne Dielman on what would become a failed project, which was being made with a woman’s group in 1973. I had gone to Paris in the summer to work with Chantal on the project, which turned out to be a total disaster. But this disaster was important as we were able to discuss the reasons for the failure. We both learned a lot from it. By 1975 I had proven enough of my knowledge and skill and Chantal trusted me with Jeanne Dielman, her first big film. I had no idea it would be such an important film.
NOTEBOOK: If Chantal is thinking in mostly narrative terms, then how did you go about mapping the film’s visual look? 
MANGOLTE: What was important is that it was not shot in a studio but in a real apartment. In the two weeks preparation before the shooting we did the shot list together at the kitchen table of the apartment, where also the color test and camera tests were shot. We would read through the script and decide, ok, this line will be this shot, and we would basically come up with the shot list of every scene by going into the room to look with a viewer how to frame each action. We shot everything according to each room and each angle except the last shot of the film. For example, we shot all the dinner scenes one after the other. There are some camera movements when Delphine’s character is walking outside, but there was no way to really do that in the apartment—and it wasn’t necessary. Jeanne has a life, which is locked in, disciplined, so the static camera totally goes with the subject matter. You’ll notice Chantal didn’t really do that in other films because those had different protagonists.
NOTEBOOK: Coming after these three films, which were more or less shot indoors, how was the experience of shooting outside, in a more documentary-like style for News from Home
MANGOLTE: Even though News From Home is obviously shot as a documentary––nothing was staged, we were simply capturing people outside––it wasn’t meant to be a documentary about New York. It was more a reflection on diaspora, loneliness, and being lost in a city. But Chantal loved being in New York, because of that same energy that initially had inspired me to stay in the city. She had been writing since she arrived to work on the film in April 1976––she always started to write before shooting every film. I was visiting her every week in her hotel, and though she wasn’t telling me everything she was writing, we were having conversations about it. So for New from Home I pragmatically produced the film—the money came from a television company [INA] in France, but since we were planning on shooting outdoors and in the subways I knew we needed insurance. I took care of these things, investigated the costs since she had very little money. News from Home was actually a commissioned film made essentially to erase some of the debt from Jeanne Dielman. It was shot very quickly, in under a week, but it was very organized. Chantal had taken a long time trying to figure out how to communicate living in New York. Like every big city, the time you spend in the subway moving from one place to another is actually very relevant to your life. These moments of waiting are very important in your daily life. The time you wait is the time you think.  
NOTEBOOK: Do you remember shooting the last shot? 
MANGOLTE: Yes, we shot it only once. It was planned as the last shot in the film and we had a full magazine of 11 minutes to do it. That was only the second time Chantal took the ferry. I thought it would be a beautiful image. All I did was zoom out a little at the end of the shot so you could see more of the water. But that’s totally instinctive! I didn’t ask Chantal if I could zoom out. I have an inner clock, so when I felt we were nearing eleven minutes I made the choice to pull back a little bit to give this sense of space. And we were lucky to get that look, since it was late June or July and very muggy. The city seems to recede in smog. 
NOTEBOOK: News from Home is such an important film about Chantal’s relationship with her mother. And of course her last film, No Home Movie [2015], is about her mother. What was your sense of their relationship? Was this something she spoke about often or openly? 
MANGOLTE: Both of her parents, as Belgian citizens, had been taken by the Nazis, and that was definitely important to her. The fact that they had survived was a miracle. On the other hand, Chantal became more preoccupied with such matters after the death of her father, which I think was in the late 90s. Early on, she was very open about her sexuality, but her father wanted her to marry and was not accepting of her being a lesbian. And besides, she was bisexual. She had slept with many men, too. But the death of her father definitely changed her relationship with her mother.
It’s a difficult question. Rather than being dependent on her parents, her mother was actually dependent on Chantal. And Chantal was not living in Brussels. She had been for years in either New York or Paris, and traveling a lot. That dependence was a burden, and their relationship became more complicated when her mother became sick those final two years when Chantal shot No Home Movie. The film was shot almost completely before her mother died. I remember seeing Chantal in New York where she was teaching around this time, and she would say, “I have to go visit my mother, what a drag.” She was saying that because her mother was sick, and it was important that she go see her.
I think people romanticize the fact that No Home Movie is a film about her mother dying, and that it ended up being her last film. The film was seen in New York and in London after Chantal had already died and it colored the reception and impact of the film. It should not have been her last film. It wasn’t even her last project. She did two other projects: Maniac Shadows, an installation, and her last gallery project at the Venice Biennale, which had to do with war and Israel and landscapes. To me, her last masterpieces in films are Là-bas [2006] and Almayer’s Folly [2011], both absolutely amazing and which have nothing to do with her mother. What’s interesting about Almayer’s Folly is that at the end it’s about a daughter trying to sing a Mozart aria that her father wanted her to sing when she was a child. Now as an adult the daughter has rebelled against her father and his western culture to embrace the native culture of her mother that she feels is her own culture. In the last scene of the film the daughter tries to sing the aria that her father loved so much but that she could never learn. Her musically failed attempt to sing is like an acknowledgement of the father she has rejected, and she tries to pay homage to him. Chantal was very preoccupied with trying to communicate the experience of her parents, and perhaps her last great film was about trying to communicate with her father rather than her mother.  

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