For Claire Atherton, editing is building. It is, as she often states, much like life itself, where one thing leads to another. This week’s selection brings together three important films she collaborated on. In Chantal Akerman’s Sud, the images evoke the cruel history of the United States’ southern landscape, through heavy silences and a wind that gently shakes the trees. Akerman’s “extreme attention to the present” was key to dealing with the material so clearly rooted in the past. Together, Atherton remarks, they would listen to Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” whilst editing the film, only to decide that the image of swaying branches was enough to set the spectator’s mind in motion. Éric Baudelaire worked four years on Un film dramatique, portraying a group of students from the Dora Maar middle school in Saint-Denis, a banlieue near Paris. The group’s own imagination takes centre stage as they use the camera to document their daily experiences and essentially take on their own way of growing up. The last film of the selection, No Home Movie, unfortunately also marked the end of a long collaboration with Akerman. Atherton has spoken abundantly about the editing and their working habits, about only working in the afternoons, for example, or about the fact that Akerman would like to cook while Atherton was busy editing. “It was a very, very happy moment”, she writes. “It could have been sad, but it was very happy. We were building something, we were laughing. Sometimes it was sad, but it was happy. That’s important to know.”
Sud (Chantal Akerman, 1999)
“It’s hard to explain what guides me when I put one image after another, when I cut a shot or place a sound. I don’t really have a method. What I can say is that, most of the time, I need to start at the beginning. Placing the first shot is like laying the foundation stone of a house; it’s nearly nothing, but at the same time it is momentous because it’s a birth. There’s nothing, and then there is [something].”
Un film dramatique (Éric Baudelaire, 2019)
“During editing, words can be dangerous. The film’s momentum can be killed by words that describe intentions, words that precipitate toward a conclusion or claim to see through its mysteries. But some words help – those that suggest and disrupt, that discover fault lines and send us on alternate routes.”
No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, 2015)
“My advice is to slow down, to respect the time of artistic creation. Embark on an edit with humility, almost with naivety. This process of deliberate groping around in the dark is what allows the film to go beyond its subject, to stay alive, to continue to move and breathe once it is finished. A living film isn’t locked into a specific meaning but is, on the contrary, free and open, growing and evolving in each viewer, endlessly interpreted and reinterpreted over time, always in motion.”
All excerpts are taken from Atherton’s text Living Matter. This text and its original counterpart L’Art du montage appeared earlier on Sabzian, with a Dutch translation.
For Sud, Chantal Akerman traveled to the American South after having discovered that a black man named James Byrd Jr. was gruesomely murdered by three white men. Her lingering gaze unsettles the seemingly ordinary landscape, revealing the violent history that hides in the silence of the South.
“Il faut aussi pour mieux percevoir ce Sud, peu à peu rencontrer des gens, des gens qui parlent ou se taisent, des gens qui parlent pour ne rien dire et disent parfois tant, des gens qui parlent pour dire et en disent parfois trop.”
“Sud was shot in the American South, and its strength is the dialectic between past and present. Chantal went down there, attracted by Faulkner and Baldwin. The film begins gently, almost peacefully: people talk about how everything seems better now than it used to be. But little by little, in this quiet landscape, you start to feel anxiety. The strident sound of insects becomes threatening, and so do the trees. We begin to hear about slavery and lynching, and then, as the tension grows powerful, we start to question the placidity we saw at the beginning.
Chantal and I often listened to Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit during the editing process. We even considered putting the song in the film. Ultimately, we didn’t even try. But we put in trees – one, two, three of them. When you look at them in the film, you can’t help thinking about hangings. And the shot of prisoners working in a cotton field conjures up the memory of slavery. What guided me during the construction of Sud was Chantal’s extreme attention to the present. We never show or describe the past, but it is dredged up by the present.
Chantal hadn’t planned for the framework of Sud to be the story of James Byrd Jr.’s lynching by white supremacists. Before leaving for what was supposed to be a location-scouting trip, she was only talking about the area’s oppressive landscape and silence. She was practically obsessed. Silence and crickets. But the day she arrived in Jasper, Texas, happened to be the commemoration of James Byrd Jr.’s murder. This became a central sequence in the film.
Sud is not simply a film about the lynching and enslavement of black people in the United States. It’s about the violence of the world and the way history haunts landscapes to become a part of our gaze. By going beyond the categories of good and evil and allowing a space of dignity for each character, including those who speak the most horrible things, the film shakes us directly, questioning our own way of looking at the other and the whole of humanity.”
“Le silence du film est le silence de l’amnésie ou de l’impossibilité de dire – impossibilité qui se retrouve chez un Faulkner où les circonvolutions de l’écriture mettent en scène, en fait, l’incapacité du parler de. Comme l’exprime Addie Bundren dans As I Lay Dying, ‘words are no good; words dont ever fit what they are trying to say at.’ Il ne s’agit donc pas d’un documentaire sur le Sud des Etats-Unis, d’une excursion européenne dans un territoire américain exotique, mais d’une cartographie de la mémoire: ‘J’ai aussi eu envie d’aller voir là-bas ... si ce paysage garde les traces ou le souvenir même de quelque chose d’autre que leur propre beauté.’ Sud laisse la mémoire se faire, dessine un espace où la mémoire peut évoluer, espace de mémoire et mémoire de l’espace se rencontrent.”
“Sud, then, like its predecessor D'Est, is an archaeology of suffering, a memory-space where shadows of the past haunt the deceptively anodyne quotidian. The two works attempt to come to terms with horrific events whilst at the same time acknowledging the difficulty of finding an appropriate language with which to express the horror. [...] The film's last scene, a seven-minute-long tracking shot of the road on which the victim [James Byrd Jr.] was dragged to death, is exemplary of her more oblique, distilled approach to the cinematic image. The camera, fixed to the back of a car, meticulously scans the stretch of road and its surrounding countryside. Blue circles drawn on the tarmac by the police to circumscribe the places where personal possessions and body parts of the victim were found come into sight. Though not in any way graphic, this is arguably the most violent scene in Akerman's entire oeuvre. For spectators, the horror is all the more intense because our imagination has to supply the images of suffering the director withholds from view. Ultimately, invisibility becomes the most powerful strategy in a film that, from the outset, sets up a tension between what is and what isn't shown or said and which actively implicates the spectator in its summoning of the dead.”
- 1. Chantal Akerman, “Notes of intent”, from the he archives of Chantal Akerman and Paradise Films, Fondation Chantal Akerman.
- 2. Claire Atherton, “Living Matter,” Sabzian, 16 December 2020.
- 3. Marie Liénard, “Sud de Chantal Akerman ou une histoire de territoire et de terre: le Sud comme espace de mémoire,” Caliban, 19, 2006: 131-138.
- 4. Marion Schmid, Chantal Akerman (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), 112-113.
For four years Eric Baudelaire regularly met with students from the film group at Dora Maar middle school in Saint-Denis. Time for them to grow together, time to find the form of a film in which they would be the true subjects: its characters, its authors and its promise.
“First initiated in autumn 2015 as a documentary about the newly constructed Dora Maar junior high school in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, the final film has transformed, over regular shooting sessions with students from the school’s film group, into an amorphous and ebullient collective project. At once a portrait of a diverse group of students during critical years of growth, captured at a time of political upheaval locally and globally, Un film dramatique is also a film about friendship, emancipation, trust, performance, and, in particular, the act of filmmaking for a generation raised by selfies and YouTube. Charming, and deceptively simple, the work’s political might emerges in small, magical gestures. As the kids grow and mature, the passage of time is felt rather than announced, most notably in their increasingly sophisticated footage: bold, courageous steps towards making work that matters to them, that responds to their questions, that confronts their place in the world. Neither documentary nor fiction, the film poses a conundrum of what it is the students are creating, individually and collectively. As time alters their bodies and shared conversations, they emerge as not only subjects of their film, but also of their own lives.”
- 1. Andréa Picard, “Un film dramatique”, Toronto International Film Festival, 2019.
Daniel Kasman: This is not the first film we’ve seen of yours that is about your relationship with your mother. This has been a filmmaking motif for you. Can you say something about its importance, the relationship to your filmmaking practice?
Chantal Akerman: I cannot. I had the feeling for a long time – my mother went into the camps and never said a word about it – that I had to talk for her, which is crazy because you cannot talk for someone else. So I was obsessed by that, by her life. I was obsessed also by the way when she went out of the camps she made her house into a jail. That’s Jeanne Dielman. Now I can tell that, but I was not aware of that when I did it, you know? So I thought that I was the one that had to make, because she would not say anything, that I was the one who was going to testimony instead of her.
But, once, I was in Mexico with her because my niece had her wedding – my sister lives in Mexico – and my film about Conrad, Almayer’s Folly, was screened there, and I went on the stage, I had a Q&A, and my mother was deaf, you know, so she didn’t understand anything. But when we went out, she said, “you have all that, and I had only Auschwitz.” And then I realized that same moment that I could not speak on her behalf, she was the only one who could speak, and if she didn’t want to speak, that should be it.
So, yes, she was a part of my filmmaking, you know I can say it now, because during the whole time when I did News from Home we saw letters and many other things, I was not aware of all that, you know? Now, I’m aware. Now I realize that maybe I took a position or a place that was in a way entering in her territory by refraction. Who knows. It’s complicated.
There were some books that were written about second generation children, and they analyze, saying there are three generations of people who will be hurt after the one that went into the camps. And I’m the first generation, the first girl, the first child in both sides of the family, in my mother’s side and my father’s side after the war. So imagine: I took on my back all the desire to reject them, because I didn’t make any children, I am not married. This is not their desire, their desire is for me to perpetrate. First of all my father wanted a boy, not a girl, of course, because the first one should be a boy, for the name, he told me once. And I didn’t do all that, I did all the other ways from what they wanted. At the same time, they were very proud when they saw... my mother kept all the articles. My father was annoyed because I didn’t make enough money, but he was still very proud.
So I don’t know if I answered your question, because I’m not really able to answer it. It’s a complicated question and it would take hours. But, a lot of things I can say now, and when I was actually doing it, I was totally unaware, you know? It’s more for a historian of cinema to answer your question than for me. Because you ask the filmmaker as if the filmmaker knows a lot about his own work. The filmmaker, a person like me, is the last one to be asked, in a way, you know? Because I don’t embrace my body of work and I don’t have like a point of view from outside, to say, “hey Chantal, you did that and it’s related to your mother, here again, here again, what did that mean and what did you want” – no. I just had an idea and I did it. But then I go to talks, I go to psychoanalysis and I speak about that, so I do understand a little bit. But it really takes an outside point of view and that’s not my work. So I cannot really answer. I think that should be your work.
Daniel Kasman in conversation with Chantal Akerman1