Among the many films that Chantal Akerman (1955–2015) made over forty years, four documentaries stand out. Beginning with FROM THE EAST, filmed across Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, through SOUTH and FROM THE OTHER SIDE, two films in the United States as relevant and impactful today as when first released, to her epistolary DOWN THERE from Tel Aviv (released here for the first time in North America), Akerman’s documentaries combine her formal discipline with engagement and empathy.
On a fifth disc is CHANTAL AKERMAN, FROM HERE, an hour-long conversation with Akerman about her entire body of work. Candidly assessing her successes and failures, an image emerges of a woman assured, idiosyncratic, with remarkable intellectual clarity and an ethical commitment to making films in which the viewer can "feel the time passing by in your own body," because, she says, "that is the only thing you have: time."
"Arguably the most important European director of her generation."
—J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
FROM THE EAST retraces a journey from the end of summer to deepest winter, from East Germany, across Poland and the Baltics, to Moscow. It is a voyage Chantal Akerman wanted to make shortly after the collapse of the Soviet bloc "before it was too late," reconstructing her impressions in the manner of a documentary on the border of fiction.
By filming "everything that touched me," Akerman sifts through and fixes upon sounds and images as she follows the thread of this subjective crossing. Without dialogue or commentary, FROM THE EAST is a cinematographic elegy.
"If this isn't a masterpiece, tear the word from your dictionary." —The Nation
Inspired by her love of William Faulkner and James Baldwin, renowned director Chantal Akerman had planned to produce a meditation on the American South. However, just days before she was to begin filming, James Byrd, Jr. was murdered in Jasper, Texas. A black family man, Byrd has been severely beaten by three white men, chained to their truck, and dragged three miles through predominately black parts of the county.
This racially motivated killing shook the country and revealed the intense hate that still lies just beneath the surface of our society. Instead of following the story in a typical American media fashion, Akerman allows the story to slowly unfold on its own. Long, panning shots set the stage, creating the world of Jasper. Patient interviews reveal the thoughts and emotions of the local townspeople. Akerman's access to their lives, including being allowed to film Byrd's funeral, allows her to tell the tale in a pensive and beautiful fashion.
Alternating static shots and dolly shots, Akerman reconstitutes the horrible incident. But this is not an anatomy of his murder, nor the autopsy of a black man lynched by three white males. Rather, it is an evocation of how this event fits in to a landscape and climate that is as much mental as physical.
"Conjures the ghosts of the hate crimes and lynchings that have plagued that part of the U.S. for decades. Makes its sorrowful points succintly." —Variety
With her unmistakable style Chantal Akerman explores the border between the United States and Mexico. For years immigrants passed through San Diego, but cutting-edge technologies have helped stem the flow of illegal immigration there. This leaves only the mountains and deserts of Arizona for those desperate enough to try their luck. And it is here that Akerman shifts her focus, between Agua Prieta, Sonora, and Douglas, Arizona, and the desert in between.
Mixing evocative landscapes with interviews with the families of immigrants, American sheriffs, fearful locals, and advocates, FROM THE OTHER SIDE is "a spare, painterly and scrupulously unsentimental look. Both eerily beautiful and filled with a quiet compassion." —Dave Kehr, The New York Times
"Chilling! Stunningly composed." —Film Comment
According to director Chantal Akerman, she never planned to make a film in Israel. She was convinced that neutrality does not exist and that her subjectivity would get in her way. She was sure she would only be able to reflect on 'the Israel question' while she was outside the country.
It was only when she taught at the University of Tel Aviv, picked up a camera and 'found' suitable images that she decided to make a film. Akerman spends a brief period on her own in an apartment by the sea in Tel Aviv. She takes the chamber play to its ultimate form: it is almost entirely chamber. She films from the apartment and in her narration she talks about her family, her Jewish identity and her childhood. She wonders whether normal everyday life is possible in this place and whether filming is a realistic option. Akerman does not film here with any intentions defined in advance. She wants to be as open and blank as possible to ensure that things take their own course.
"Fragile and most powerful." —Film Comment
The renowned Belgian filmmaker sits down for an hour-long conversation about her entire body of work in this film by Gustavo Beck and Leonardo Luiz Ferreira.
Throughout, the camera holds steady from outside an open door. The long, unbroken shot, and the frame-within-a-frame pay homage to Akerman's own unmistakable style ("I need a corridor. I need doors. Otherwise, I can't work", she says). But by shooting her in profile, the filmmakers provide a contrast to the signature frontality of her compositions (one of the many subjects covered in the wide-ranging interview) - an acknowledgement of this portrait's contingency also underlined by the title.
Akerman describes her first experiences with avant-garde film in New York, and, in particular, the lessons she took from the work of Michael Snow. She answers questions about her approach to fiction, documentary, and literary adaptation, covering everything from the early short LA CHAMBRE (1972) to the recent feature LÀ-BAS (2006). She explains her preference for small budgets and small crews, and the paramount importance of instinct and improvisation in her directorial process.
She is nothing if not forthcoming, candidly assessing her successes and failures, including an aborted attempt at writing at Hollywood screenplay. An image emerges of a filmmaker as assured and idiosyncratic as the work suggests.
...and a 12-page booklet with new essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Amy Taubin.
"A heedlessly individual voice." —The A.V. Club
"Daring, uncompromising and in all ways radical." —Toronto International Film Festival
"Akerman was, simultaneously, a documentarian and a narrative filmmaker; a maker of comedies and films of existential horror; a dry, minimalist filmmaker and one who made films full of song, laughter, and joy." —CinemaScope