For certain film buffs, Chantal Akerman is famous as the director of one of the screen’s most legendary endurance tests. Akerman’s masterpiece, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975), as the precise title might indicate, is a remarkably focused three-and-a-half-hour study of the mundane routine of a Brussels housewife — the ultimate realist film. Akerman takes us deep inside the heart of the boring, revealing a hidden world of unseen details, unnoticed shifts and tectonic tremors lurking beneath the surface of everyday life. Alongside her longstanding devotion to realism, Akerman, born in 1950 to a family of Holocaust survivors, has long been interested in Jewish history and Jewish life, making a series of films and video installations that wrestle with these subjects.
Chantal Akerman: Spiral Autobiography, a new show that opened earlier this month at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, gathers three of Akerman’s recent installations, including two on subjects of Jewish interest. The first, “From the East/The Installation: Bordering on Fiction,” is based on her 1993 film “D’Est,” a poetic tour through post-communist Eastern Europe that also serves as a meditation on Akerman’s own family and on its long, tangled history in the lands of the east. Through a series of images of interior and exterior landscapes — desolate rooms, blinking traffic lights on empty roads, solitary figures struggling to make their way across the frame — Akerman summons the ghost of the communist beast and, perhaps more personally, that of the vanished Jewish life that once flourished in these same barren zones.
“A Voice in the Desert” stems from Akerman’s film “From the Other Side” (2002), which depicted the efforts of Mexicans to cross into the United States. It was made in traditional Akerman fashion — long, immobile shots; a preference for landscape over action, and painterly framing.
Her newest work, “To Walk Next to One’s Shoelaces in an Empty Fridge (Marcher à côte de ses lacets dans un frigidaire vide),” likewise springs from a feature film, if far more obliquely. Akerman’s most recent film, 2004’s “Tomorrow We Move” (which played at the New York Jewish Film Festival last year), incorporated many of the elements present in her new installation, including her grandmother’s wartime diary and the use of conversations that Akerman conducted with her mother as inspiration for her characters’ dialogue. The exhibit includes a spiral wrapped in tulle, covered with quotes from Akerman about her work as a filmmaker, and a short film of her mother reading from her grandmother’s Holocaust-era diary and talking about her own wartime experiences — a conversation, Akerman says in the show’s catalog, that brought a sense of closure to her work for the past 30 years. “All these films have finally brought me that. She finally feels better. She finally shed a tear. Thirty-three years of work with so many turns and detours, and she finally feels better.” As the show’s curator, Edna Moshenson, notes, Akerman is looking to collapse the personal and the collective, her work and her family, in her art, seeking, as Akerman says in “To Walk,” to escape “this binary world”: “Her wandering leads her from the home into the world, and from the world back to the home; from a personal, female identity to Jewish identity; from the self to the family; from familial history to historical events; from narrative cinema to the documentary bordering on fiction.”
Saul Austerlitz is a writer in New York City.
Screening Chantal Akerman