The inner turmoil of Chantal Akerman's new documentary, which premiered in the International Competition of the Locarno Film Festival, is clear from its paradoxical title. Brazenly called No Home Movie, it consisting almost entirely of footage of the great Belgian director's elderly mother in her home in Brussels. In this strict confinement, No Home Movie is shot digitally in a far more loose and imprecise technique than Akerman's film-films, but is still composed around the director's characteristic structural motifs of closed and open doors, windows, and other constricting frames within frames. With few external excursions (mysterious intercessions of footage of the Israeli desert, as well as Chantal, while traveling in anonymous hotel rooms, Skyping her mother), No Home Movie is a taut but patient observation of the emptying stillness of a home inhabited by someone getting older and sicker.
"Your camera, every time," her mother cluckingly, affectionately nags, when Akerman calls her only to reveal not her face in the Skype frame but her face covered by a giant digital camera, recording her mother's blurred image, at once distant and close. "I want to show how small the world is," the director replies, her mother not understanding. The mother's flat feels temporary, a large, impersonal space filled with very personal decor, and so Akerman's records of its rooms and doors, of her conversations with her mother about her past, and of her mother's movement around the space, feels transient, temporarily inhabited, a holding place before a transition to somewhere else. Her mother's time in Auschwitz is mentioned, as is Chantal's rejected Orthodox Jewish upbringing and her family's flight from Poland to Belgium; yet after all this lived history so little of it we see on screen in this woman's home. Nevertheless, much of it is felt in the absences in the vacated images, in the tottering mother's isolation, in the sense that Akerman herself is not fully connected to this woman, her history and her home.
A very intimate and raw essay, seeing it projected on the big screen at the sprawling FEVI cinema in Locarno in front of a thousand-plus public crowd felt almost indiscreet, a far more private communication than the director's great News from Home. This is, in a way, the sequel or epilogue to that film, which was a correspondence between Akerman's images of New York and her mother's letters to her daughter abroad. In No Home Movie, the director returns home to again communicate with her mother, but the images are no longer for her, but rather feel a release, a relinquishment of this home to the audience.
After the premiere of No Home Movie in Locarno, I sat with another critic to discuss the film with its director.
NOTEBOOK: This is not the first film we've seen of yours that is about your relationship with your mother. This has been a filmmaking motif for you. Can you say something about its importance, the relationship to your filmmaking practice?
CHANTAL AKERMAN: I cannot. I had the feeling for a long time—my mother went into the camps and never said a word about it—that I had to talk for her, which is crazy because you cannot talk for someone else. So I was obsessed by that, by her life. I was obsessed also by the way when she went out of the camps she made her house into a jail. That's Jeanne Dielman. Now I can tell that, but I was not aware of that when I did it, you know? So I thought that I was the one that had to make, because she would not say anything, that I was the one who was going to testimony instead of her.
But, once, I was in Mexico with her because my niece had her wedding–my sister lives in Mexico—and my film about Conrad, Almayer's Folly, was screened there, and I went on the stage, I had a Q&A, and my mother was deaf, you know, so she didn't understand anything. But when we went out, she said, “you have all that, and I had only Auschwitz.” And then I realized that same moment that I could not speak on her behalf, she was the only one who could speak, and if she didn't want to speak, that should be it.
So, yes, she was a part of my filmmaking, you know I can say it now, because during the whole time when I did News from Home we saw letters and many other things, I was not aware of all that, you know? Now, I'm aware. Now I realize that maybe I took a position or a place that was in a way entering in her territory by refraction. Who knows. It's complicated.
There were some books that were written about second generation children, and they analyze, saying there are three generations of people who will be hurt after the one that went into the camps. And I'm the first generation, the first girl, the first child in both sides of the family, in my mother's side and my father's side after the war. So imagine: I took on my back all the desire to reject them, because I didn't make any children, I am not married. This is not their desire, their desire is for me to perpetrate. First of all my father wanted a boy, not a girl, of course, because the first one should be a boy, for the name, he told me once. And I didn't do all that, I did all the other ways from what they wanted. At the same time, they were very proud when they saw...my mother kept all the articles. My father was annoyed because I didn't make enough money, but he was still very proud.
So I don't know if I answered your question, because I'm not really able to answer it. It's a complicated question and it would take hours. But, a lot of things I can say now, and when I was actually doing it, I was totally unaware, you know? It's more for a historian of cinema to answer your question than for me. Because you ask the filmmaker as if the filmmaker knows a lot about his own work. The filmmaker, a person like me, is the last one to be asked, in a way, you know? Because I don't embrace my body of work and I don't have like a point of view from outside, to say, “hey Chantal, you did that and it's related to your mother, here again, here again, what did that mean and what did you want”—no. I just had an idea and I did it. But then I go to talks, I go to psychoanalysis and I speak about that, so I do understand a little bit. But it really takes an outside point of view and that's not my work. So I cannot really answer. I think that should be your work.
You are Daniel Katzmann?
NOTEBOOK: Kasman, yes.
AKERMAN: You know the joke with Mr. Katzmann? A French joke. There is a Mr. Katzmann who goes to the head of the city—he wants to change his name because he thinks he has too much of a Jewish name. So the guy says, “okay, 'cats,' that's chat. 'Man' is l'homme. Your name shall be Mr. Shalom.” [laughs] You cannot escape your family. It's a very Jewish film I made.
NOTEBOOK: Is the footage of the desert in the film Israel?
AKERMAN: It is, because I wanted to go there, but it could be, in a way, any kind of desert. It is in Israel.
NOTEBOOK: Is that footage for you or for your mother?
AKERMAN: It's for the audience! Now, you know? It's not for any of us, it's not for my mother, it's not for me anymore. The film is done. It's out. It's out, now. That's it. So it's not for me anymore. It was for me when I was editing. That was the moment it was for me. Anyway, when I did the film, when I was shooting, I shot many, many more things that had nothing to do with my mother. And I didn't know I was going to make that film, otherwise I would probably not dare to make it. Imagine: someone who has the idea, “okay I'm going to make a film about my mother's death.” She could have lived another ten years. I had so much material that I said to my editor, Claire Atherton, "okay it's time maybe to do something with that material." A lot of things we threw out. We had 40 hours. After a while, once we had 10 hours, I said, “ah, I see what kind of film it is. I see the subject now.” But all was done very unconsciously.
NOTEBOOK: When you started, how much did you know about your mother's life?
AKERMAN: I knew, I knew. But, you know, she would always add some details when she tells a story. There is always something that you discover or re-discover. I think she speaks very well. She didn't go to school because she was in the camps when she was 15, but I think she has a way to tell a story, it's such a refined way, with simplicity and truth. There's not one thing that is far-fetched.
NOTEBOOK: Do you know how old you were when you were aware that your mother had been in Auschwitz?
AKERMAN: I was always aware. Even though my mother never said anything. Okay, so she had that number on her arm, but when I was a child of three years old I had dreams about the camps, every night. Very precise dreams about Hitler being in a big chair in a concentration camp. It was like a Pina Bausch scene. Jews were playing violins with strange smiles...
NOTEBOOK: Was this something that was discussed at all around you, maybe not talked about by your mother, but rather in class or temple?
AKERMAN: No, since I did not do what they wanted me to do, I left the community very fast. I ran away to Paris, and I'm not part of the community at all.
NOTEBOOK: Was this flat your childhood home?
AKERMAN: No, when I was a child we were very, very poor. My father bought this flat maybe fifteen years ago. That was a big, big step, because before we were living in small places, more poor. When I was a child we had nothing, and little by little my father worked like a dog and he was a very bad business man. He did leather clothes. He also had a sacrificed life because he wanted to be an engineer for airplanes but he started to work when he was 12 doing leather gloves, cutting them, because they arrived also from Poland and he came from a very rich family, so my grandfather never worked, and he had four children, and my grandmother was from a very rich family—nobody knew what it was like to work. The whole family was collapsing. So my father at the age of 12 decided to go and work and he was working like a dog since he was 12. He was good at doing things, but he was bad as a business man. So you know, that apartment was a big luxury.
NOTEBOOK: Your family left Poland, and in the film your mother and yourself talk about antisemitism in Belgium, and the Belgian king's collaboration with the Nazis. Did your parents feel at home at all in Brussels?
AKERMAN: Yes, my mother loved Brussels. She liked it because it was clean. Dirt reminds her of the camps. When I did D'Est I went to Poland, but she said, “don't go, don't go!” She was afraid for me. I don't know what happened to them there. It took my great-grandfather 20 years to bring all the family together, so they came little by little. My mother and her sister and her parents arrived the last ones. But they ran away from Poland. From my father's side, they also ran away from Poland. My grandfather went to Poland in 1950 to see if some other people were left there. Someone recognized him near the train station and he told him, “don't enter the city because they are going to kill you.” So he went back to Brussels. He never knew if someone...nobody was left, you know? All the families were killed. 1950, imagine! It's 5 years after the war. All that I knew because someone told me and someone told me. I did not know directly from him because he died when I was 7, he didn't tell me that kind of story. He was very close to me, the first child, and he was living with us because my grandmother got crazy after the war...well, you have that in the film. I thought she was crazy, as a child. My mother was saying, “no…,” denying a bit, but not so much in the end, huh? At the end, she said, “yes, you're right.” We speak about her. I was afraid of her, when I was a child. When she died, my grandfather went to live with us. He was very orthodox.
NOTEBOOK: It's such an intimate film. Is it difficult to put it in front of an audience?
AKERMAN: Very, very. I didn't know that because this was the first time. But it was very hard for me. It was very hard for me to be on the stage. I said, “there is not any relation between me standing on that stage in front of a big, big crowd and my little, fragile film.” And my poor mother, who is not even there to enjoy it. Oof! I found it so terrifying and ironic. And a bit sinister, I must say.
AKERMAN: Ironic because that big crowd who is there, who can destroy you. And my poor mother who died and is not there any more.
NOTEBOOK: Like many of your movies, in No Home Movie the camera is distant and reserved, yet during one of these wonderful Skype talks with your mother you go in close, very close to the computer screen. The images become abstract and blurry and beautiful. Can you talk about coming closer to this image of your mother?
AKERMAN: It's an impulse. I cannot say more than that. It's true. It's an impulse, it's my instinct.
NOTEBOOK: And yet, a lot of the shots in the film...it's interesting that you say you didn't know what you were going to make out of the film, because they seem so very constructed. All those shots of the apartment, the repeated shots from the same angles…
AKERMAN: Well, you know, I have done that all my life, so it's like a second nature!
NOTEBOOK: But a second nature to do the same thing in your own home?
AKERMAN: Probably. But of course in my mother's home it was special.
NOTEBOOK: What is particularly special about the apartment to you? I ask because when I was watching it I felt like I got to know the apartment very well.
AKERMAN: There is nothing special—it's just my mother's home, that's all.
NOTEBOOK: So it's very much “her”?
NOTEBOOK: Even the choice of decorations, the vases and tablecloth. It all speaks of an era.
AKERMAN: Yes, it's true, of a certain type of people, it's speaking of a certain type of people who finally make it, you know? If you go to some other people from the same category of Jews in Brussels, they will have the same furniture type.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think this environment is particularly Jewish?
AKERMAN: I don't know. I only know the Jews' apartments [laughs], I don't know the others! I suppose so. What do you think, Daniel?
NOTEBOOK: Well, my wife is Greek American and it reminds me of her grandparents' home, it's almost identical.
AKERMAN: It's the immigrant, the immigrant love. Okay, let's stop. I need some...[breathes deeply]. I think you can do your article by thinking about the film for yourself. I'm not the writer. I have already done the film—so now it's your work. It can also be like a gift, the film.