The Montreal International Documentary Festival pays tribute to the late Belgian icon
Last month, the world lost Chantal Akerman. The Belgian auteur is mainly known as a feminist and experimental artist, but she carefully avoided labels throughout her life—it is simply as a distinguished filmmaker that she will be paid tribute by the RIDM, Montreal’s International Documentary Festival.
Her last film, No Home Movie, is not the kind of documentary that throws data at you or reads you a lecture. It’s a deeply personal and demanding video essay that presents you with images and words and rarely explains what the meaning behind them is.
The subject of the film is the director’s mother, a Holocaust survivor who lived some of her last days in the presence of Akerman’s camera. By the time the film is over, her mother has passed away, which is, as many things in Akerman’s work, implicit—her voice gets deeper; her cough gets stronger; she becomes oblivious to her grown children’s pleas to tell them a story; and her apartment eventually empties itself of her.
All of this is intercut with ambiguously long shots of nature. A four-minute shot of a tree in the wind opens the film. Another one, captured from a moving car’s window, shows a desertic landscape. What is Akerman trying to say? Is she commenting on the fact that her mother, from her cosy Brussels apartment, will never be able to witness these sights? No voiceover is provided, and the viewer is left on their own to reflect on how many mysteries died with both of these women.
“Tell me, why are you filming me like that?” asks Akerman’s mother in one of their Skype conversations. “Because I want to show that there is no distance in the world,” answers Akerman. Her camera later zooms into her mother’s face as if that could help shorten the distance between them—they speak from different continents.
Much of the film was shot at the mother’s home in Brussels, but the title should tell you that this is not what you’d call a home movie. The camera captures conversations, some involving Akerman, others without her, some inconsequential and barely audible, while others scratch the surface of the mother’s wartime trauma.
This isn’t a home movie, and I’m not even sure that it’s cinema, but it expresses a daughter’s feelings for her mother in the way she intended it. If geographical distance has been in part vanquished through technology, death, concisely illustrated by a vacant space, cannot be helped. Or perhaps as long as a film exists, a person can live on, in a perpetual loop—there lived in Brussels a woman by the name of Natalia Akerman. As No Home Movie starts, she is alive. As it ends, she has passed away. One of the pleasures of a film is that it can be rewound.
The RIDM runs from Nov. 12 to Nov. 22. No Home Movie will be screened at the Excentris Movie Theatre on Nov. 15 at 4 p.m. and Nov. 20 at 8 p.m.