Chantal Akerman: Remembering a pioneering feminist filmmaker

Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman has died, aged 65. A revered and original talent, she was devoted to capturing the nuances of women’s lives

Director Chantal Akerman. (Donald Weber/Getty Images)

I imagine that women in every field have these heroes: the other women who showed them that success did not have to mean leaving yourself behind. That your highest aspiration did not have to be to do what you do “as well as a man.”

This morning I was supposed to interview one of mine: the filmmaker Chantal Akerman. The plan had originally been for me to speak with Akerman at the New York Film Festival, where she was coming to present her new feature, No Home Movie — one of only three films directed by women among the 28 in the Main Slate. Yesterday morning, my contact wrote to say that Akerman had canceled her trip to New York and that I should call her at home in Paris, at 11 am EST instead.

Later in the afternoon she wrote again. “The time may be changing,” she said. “I’ll keep you posted.”

I did not think anything of it. Chantal Akerman was one of the most important directors of her generation and one of the most important feminist filmmakers ever. In other words, she was entitled to reschedule interviews as many times as she liked. So you can imagine my sense of shock this morning, as I took a break from going over my questions to scroll through Facebook and saw the story that a friend had posted from the French newspaper Libération: “The cinéaste Chantal Akerman is dead.”

By now, other obituaries will have covered the facts. Chantal Akerman was “a pioneer in feminist and experimental filmmaking” and “a leading light of experimental European cinema”. Directors Gus van Sant, Todd Haynes, and Michael Haneke all cite her as a powerful influence. She was an internationally renowned and deeply original auteur in a field that was and is overwhelmingly dominated by men.

Akerman was born in Brussels in 1950. Her parents were Polish Holocaust survivors, and she grew up practicing Judaism. At age fifteen, Akerman saw Jean Luc Godard’s Technicolor caper, Pierrot le fou, and decided that she, too, wanted to make films. At eighteen, she started film school in Belgium, but she dropped out after just a semester to shoot her own short film, Saute ma ville (Blow Up My City).

After showing it at the famous Oberhausen Film Festival, Akerman left for New York, where she spent two years immersed in the downtown scene around Anthology Archives. The experimental filmmakers she met there were working outside the systems of storytelling and theatrical distribution that even a rebel like Jean Luc Godard still relied on. Working among figures like Michael Snow, Yvonne Rainer, and Andy Warhol she became convinced that the minimal, repetitive forms they used could create new kinds of “energy” onscreen.

Akerman began working at a moment when feminist film theory was also taking off, creating a new language for talking about how the cinema depicted women. Not only what kinds of characters they played, or what stories got told, but how the conventions of filmmaking — of cinematography, lighting, editing — shaped what kind of women men desired, and women desired to be.

In 1972 the experimental filmmaker and theorist Laura Mulvey published a hand-grenade of a polemic: “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is still one of the most frequently cited articles in the humanities. Using examples from Alfred Hitchcock, Mulvey detailed how Hollywood films turned women into objects for male characters to act upon, and for male spectators to look at. Mulvey called women in these films “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Needless to say, she was looking for other ways to picture women, as they saw themselves, and to capture experiences that had been ignored in male-dominated productions.  So was Akerman. Akerman took the cool rigor of the techniques that she developed in New York — still cameras, long, uninterrupted takes, natural, ambient sound — and turned them on the rhythms of women’s lives that were un-spectacular, and un-glamorous; indeed banal.

These were also the years when socialist feminists Silvia Federici and Selma James were calling for “Wages for Housework” –explaining all the ways in which the modern economy ran on the uncompensated work that women did at home, and demanding that women should be paid for the efforts that they undertook to bear and raise children and to feed, clean and care for husbands — to sustain and replace the workforce.

The film that made Akerman famous, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is all about housework. She was only twenty-four when she made it. The film takes place entirely in a (slightly chintzy) apartment. It shows the life of the widow who lives there. She spends most of her days doing housework and caring for her middle-school-aged son. We watch her, in real time, washing and chopping potatoes and kneading ground meat for his dinner; we watch her wash the dishes after they eat. Occasionally, Jeanne Dielman receives male clients — she seems to be doing sex work to make ends meet —  but Akerman never shows us those encounters.

jeanne dielman

In “Jeane Dielman”, Chantal Akerman keeps the eye of her camera trained on the everyday where “nothing happens”.

Even at the end, when one of these encounters turns violent, we only see the aftermath. Akerman does not show us any of the salacious stuff a Hollywood film would — or Godard would riff on, ironically. Instead, she keeps the eye of her camera trained on the everyday where “nothing happens.” Which is to say, where women’s lives take place. The maddeningly slow pace is part of the polemic. This is not a 9-to-5. The film calls us to live in another kind of time, the time that has often been discounted — to regard it as having dignity, and give it consideration.

When I saw Jeanne Dielman for the first time, I was 25. People use different verbs for works of art that affect them. We say they “strike” us, or “astonish” us, or “blow us away.” The sensation I remember feeling, with increasing intensity, as the hours passed, was one of being filled, soaked, immersed by a sensation whose stain has never really left me.

How much of my mother was in that film? How much like it would I become, no matter how hard I tried?

I grew up in the 1990s, when girls were supposed to be able to become anything, and feminism was something we read about in history class. I had made it to 25 under the delusion that none of it applied to me. But of course it does.

There may not be formal legal obstacles to prevent a woman my age from seeking education or employment in whatever field she chooses. But this does not mean that men and women have equal opportunities. Anyone paying attention knows that being “free” to work outside the home is not a fix-all. It does not automatically eliminate pre-existing inequalities.

In practice, women who are “free to work” usually have to take on at least two jobs: the one they do for a wage, and the one they do when the waged work ends. On the “Second Shift” they bear and raise children and care for partners and older relatives; they keep their fridges stocked and their bathrooms clean. Some sociologists now speak of a “Third Shift”: the emotional exertions that are required to manage the sense of exhaustion, frustration, shame, guilt, etc. that result from struggling and failing to keep up with the impossible pace of Shifts One and Two.

Of course, many women may not want to marry or have children. But our society continues to expect women to perform most carework, and this fact means that, even if women are now graduating from college at higher rates than their male counterparts and comprise a majority of the workforce, they will struggle to break into the top ranks of most professions in significant numbers. A reminder: Of twenty-eight films in competition at the New York Film Festival, three are by female directors. Three.

The strain of feminism that made achievement in school or in the workplace the benchmark of progress taught women to think of the work they did caring for others as a handicap — or a waste. A society that grants little to no money and status to those who do the work of having and raising children, or caring for the sick and elderly, may say caregiving is priceless, but we treat it as worthless. This has not only economic effects, but emotional ones. Caregivers who are made to feel that their work is worthless often resent those they care for. And it goes both ways: for years I resented my stay-at-home mother for having nothing better to do than care for me. Akerman seems to have had the wisdom and vision to love her mother beyond measure. From the beginning, she depicted female work with dignity, even when it inspired frustration and rage.

Given that women do perform the vast majority of carework, shouldn’t any feminist want more representations of it? Don’t we want to see which parts are entrapping and infuriating and which parts are honorable and might be transformative?

Akerman’s final film will have its US premiere at the New York Film Festival on Wednesday. The trailer shows a Skype conversation that she recorded. It is almost heartbreaking to watch her elderly mother bow over her keyboard, trying to figure out how to turn on the microphone and look into the camera properly.

“You are too close! You are too close!” Chantal, whom we can see in a thumbnail image protests. To a child who is used to having this kind of broken conversation with her own aging parents, it is heartbreaking to hear her mother beam — “magnifique!” — when Chantal says she will visit soon.

One of the main threats that looms constantly over women who profess themselves to be feminists — or to be too ambitious, or too anything — is that they will “die alone.” When you read about the fates of firebrands like Shulamith Firestone, or now Akerman, it is hard not to take them as a warning. Yet this is not the message to take from the life of a woman who took the carework in which women spend so much of their lives and distilled it into a keen kind of poetry.

“Why are you filming this?” her mother asks, peering out at us, through the computer, in the trailer.

Chantal laughs.

“I want to show that there is no distance in the world any more.”

Moira Weigel is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature and Film and Media at Yale University. Her first book, Labor of Love, a feminist history of dating, will be published by FSG in early 2016. Follow her @moiragweigel

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