Exile on Second Street

Chantal Akerman's Adaptation of a Joseph Conrad Novel

Outcasts of the Islands: Aurora Marion (above) seeks refuge in ‘La Folie Almayer’ directed by Chantal Akerman.
Courtesy DoC & Film International
Outcasts of the Islands: Aurora Marion (above) seeks refuge in ‘La Folie Almayer’ directed by Chantal Akerman.

By Adam Langer

Published August 31, 2012, issue of September 07, 2012.
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Akerman is not religious, nor is she particularly steeped in Jewish culture, though she expresses a great fondness for Albert Londres’s book “Le Juif Errant Est Arrivé” (“The Wandering Jew Has Arrived”) and the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and she has more than a few choice words to say about the recent rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Few of her films explore Jewish themes overtly — the 1989 “Histoires D’Ameriques,” which Akerman says was inspired by the Forverts advice column “A Bintel Brief,” and “Down There,” from 2006, are notable exceptions. But themes of exile and outsider status recur frequently in her work, and she acknowledges that there are resonances between her history and the lives of her characters.

“All my work is autobiographical, and at the same time, all of it is not,” Akerman said. “Exile is one of my main projects. I was born in a Jewish family that went from Poland to Belgium. There was no room for Jews there. Even in Belgium, when my father took me out of a Jewish school and put me in a secular school, I was totally feeling alienated. Even when I’m in Israel, I feel as though I’m in exile. When I went there in 1961, it was beautiful, it was idealistic, it was fantastic. It’s not the case anymore. It’s even more capitalistic than America, and then there are a lot of problems with the very religious. So where is there room for me there? Even among Jews I am in exile, because I’m not married, I don’t have children and I am a ‘bachelor’ by choice, and that’s like being in exile, because I live in a world where everybody speaks about their families. The only place I don’t feel like an exile is in New York.”

At the same time, as one discovers the parallels between Akerman’s stories and her personal account, it’s hard to refrain from finding similarities between Akerman’s film and another famous director’s Joseph Conrad adaptation, one that was also set partly in Cambodia and featured Wagner prominently on its soundtrack. I told Akerman that I was tempted to refer to “La Folie Almayer” as her postcolonial Jewish feminist response to “Apocalypse Now.” Despite its occasional outbursts of violence, Akerman’s film, unlike Francis Ford Coppola’s, refuses to indulge in macho, orgiastic displays.

“But no,” Akerman said to me. “No, no, I don’t think so. I love ‘Apocalypse Now,’ but that’s a very different Wagner he uses; his is a Nazi Wagner, mine is not. And my story is much more the story of a father and his daughter, and that is definitely not what ‘Apocalypse Now’ is about.”

Anywhere else in the world, Akerman may feel alienated. But on Second Street, after her screening, in front of the Anthology entrance, she was besieged by fans. Some offered interpretations about her work and asked for explanations.

“Oh, you must forget about the ‘why,’” she finally told them. “You must let go. If you know why you do something, then why should you do it? You have to discover it. To make something is the process of discovering. And if it’s not a process of discovery, then you don’t have to do it.”

Certainly that’s sound advice for Akerman’s students and Lower East Side filmmakers in general, as they are plentiful here, and also for artists such as herself. But for critics and audiences watching films as provocative and open to interpretation as Akerman’s, we’ll most probably keep grasping and trying and searching her biography to find the why’s — whether she wants us to or not.

Adam Langer is the Forward’s arts and culture editor.


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