Having read a couple of articles about Chantal Akerman earlier this year I’d made a mental note to actually watch some of her films. Months passed, as they do, and then earlier this week the Belgian director sadly passed away, at the young age of 65. Perhaps now is as good a time as any to start, and I’ve chosen News From Home first, a 1977 documentary that combines Akerman’s 16mm footage of New York City with readings of letters she received from her mother between 1971 and 1972, when she first moved to the city.
Released a year after her most widely-celebrated film – Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – it could be described as a personal essay, less a love letter to New York and more an exploration of the sense of alienation and loneliness people experience when they first move to a city, though of course one should be wary of projecting. For this film Akerman trained her camera on Manhattan’s pre-gentrified streets and stitched together a series of long shots with the help of Francine Sandberg, later recording herself reading the content of her mother’s letters out loud and adding the voiceover to the assembled, edited footage (there are also diegetic sounds of the streets on the soundtrack, though sometimes these do not actually match up with the footage on screen, which suggests they may be field recordings made separately or that she deliberately jumbled the sound recordings made with the images). The camera is always fixed, never looking left, right, up or down, just straight ahead towards the horizon. At the beginning the footage tends to be of quieter streets, which look like they could be in the old Garment District or slightly further west towards the Hudson (New Yorkers, feel free to chime in if you’ve seen the film and correct me if I’m wrong). Later she films on the subway, sometimes on the platform and sometimes within the subway car, a brave move considering the inherent dangers of the transit system at the time. Then she moves on to busier streets, and shoots out of (car? train?) windows as they move along. Those filmed tend not to notice her camera, or pay it much attention, and eventually she begins to train it on larger crowds. That said, most of the images she captures are desolate, as if to highlight the corners of the city that are usually passed by without fanfare, while the melancholic tone is summed up well by the closing shot of Manhattan’s misty skyline, made from a ferry as it pulls away from the island. All the while we hear these sporadic reports from Akerman’s mother, who fills her daughter in on news from home, details her own concerns and illness and asks questions about the documentarian’s career and life in America. There are certain illuminating comments in the letters, such as the early one in which Akerman’s mother explains that she does not hold the experimental filmmaker’s decision to leave without speaking to her parents against her. We don’t hear or see Akerman’s responses, though it is perhaps possible to read between the lines, or in this case between the letters.
While viewing News From Home today it’s possible to feel a certain sense of nostalgia for both grainy 16mm footage and ‘old’ New York, even if you’re only familiar with the latter from the steady diet of 1970s cop shows, movies and the like that lionised the city. Yet this is less about the place than what it feels like to be in it, and there’s a certain cool detatchment throughout that could only ever be made by the independent observer or the out-of-towner. These are the exact same Manhattan streets and spaces we can see in the 1970s photographs of New Yorkers like Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand, and yet it’s so obviously the work of a non-native who is getting to grips with this vast, imposing place that it’s as fascinating a testament as their bodies of work for very different reasons, made by someone with literal and figurative distance from most of the subjects or points of interest that we see. It’s this mix of the distant and the intimate (i.e. the content of the letters) that beguiles, and accurately recreates the sensation of leaving one place behind to make a new life in another, of having one foot in one country A and the other in country B, of not knowing anybody except for those you have left behind. A peculiar but arresting film, mostly shot by Akerman’s long-term collaborator Babette Mangolte (who made a similar move from Paris to New York around the same time), and I’m intrigued to see more of the work of both as a result.
Directed by: Chantal Akerman.
Written by: Chantal Akerman.
Cinematography: Babette Mangolte, Jim Asbell.
Editing: Francine Sandberg.
Running Time: 85 minutes.