An Introduction to Chantal Akerman

By Vivian Ostrovsky


"There are filmmakers who are good, filmmakers who are great, filmmakers who are in film history. And there are a few filmmakers who change film history." – Nicola Mozzanti (Director of the Royal Belgian Archive)


Filmmaker/artist/writer/professor of film at Harvard and CUNY, NY.

As a filmmaker, she made shorts, medium length films, features, musicals and documentaries – the whole gamut.

Her recognition as an artist came after 1995 and she made about 15 installations that were shown in Biennales and art fairs all over the world. She worked with the Marian Goodman gallery.

As a writer, she wrote 3 books – Hall de Nuit, Une Famille à Bruxelles and Ma Mère Rit. The last 2 are highly recommended reading in a language that is midway between oral speech and written text.


Chantal said,
"I was born in Brussels and that’s the way I see things – frontally and straight."

She described the city as being a mixture of heaviness, sadness and joyful madness. Despite her many years based in Paris, Brussels was where she really felt at home.

Her parents were Polish émigrés and her mother was a Holocaust survivor who lost her own parents in Auschwitz. Nelly, her mother, refused to speak about the concentration camps – as so many others who lived through the same experiences – and most of Chantal’s oeuvre revolved around this silence.

"I thought I was speaking on her behalf and sometimes I’d think I was speaking against her", said Chantal.

She wanted to be a writer but after seeing Pierrot le fou, discovered that a film could be poetry as well and decided, that same day, to become a filmmaker.

Chantal dropped out of film school in Brussels after 3 months. She was in a hurry to make a film. Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town), was made in 1968, an explosive year, and she said the title could just as well have been Saute ma vie (Blow up my Life) since it dealt with her suicide.

Not long after, she travelled to New York with a friend and there met Babette Mangolte, a camerawoman and photographer working with Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, and all the main experimental artists at the time. Babette introduced her to the world of structuralist filmmakers like Michael Snow, Stan Brakhage, and Jonas Mekas who readily embraced her. She went to the Anthology Film Archive where she spent hours watching the whole cycle of more than 100 avant-garde films for days on end.

If Godard gave her the energy to want to make films, the American avant-gardists liberated her from all film school rules and regulations. She realized she could make a film with a lot of tension without necessarily telling a story.

Hotel Monterey and La chambre followed, strongly influenced by what she had seen. She financed the films by working as a ticket seller at a gay porn movie house, selling each person only half a ticket and pocketing the other half.

She came back to Paris in 1975 and made her groundbreaking Jeanne Dielman for which she became world-renowned. The success of this film, she said, in a way made it very difficult to go on to the next one.

"What do you do after creating something like that?"

In a way, she was trapped in the 23 Quai du Commerce, Brussels apartment.

Dielman was a film about time and rituals, among other things. Akerman thought the most important thing we have in life is time.

"When people go to see a film and like it, they often say 'I didn’t feel time go by'. In my films though, I want people to experience film in their body."


Another theme was Nelly. "My mother was at the heart of my work."

3 films revolved more directly around her mother:

News From Home (1976)
Là-bas (2006)
No Home Movie (2015)

It was a relationship that nourished her as much as it stifled her.

She says in Là-bas:

"If I had been born here (in Israel), my mother would have let me play with other kids. In Brussels she wouldn’t let me. And I wouldn’t have spent hours looking out of the window at other children playing."

After her mother’s death however she was the one to be afraid:

"Now that she is no longer here there is nobody left. That’s why now I’m afraid …will I still have something to say?"

The film was shot with a hand-held camera and one can follow every movement until you get to the signature Akerman framing of the camera. One can see simultaneously the film as well as the "making of".

At first she thought of using the title Home Movies because of the homemade qualities this work had. It had been entirely shot and edited by her. And then she found No Home Movie stronger. She left it up to her audience to decipher what she meant by it.

Her introduction to the film at the Locarno Film Festival was brief:

"The film is the story of a loss – my mother. And also the story of a reunion – with my mother. It demands a bit of patience and the ability to let go of oneself. And that’s what I ask of you now."