What a pleasure to receive this publication in my mailbox this week.
It was also a pleasure to contribute a number of short-form essays to it.
an overview of Belgian Surrealist cinema,
and of the short film analyses the book contains, I wrote on Chantal Akerman’s Tout une nuit (1982) and on her magnificent directional tetralogy of the 1990s and 2000s: D’Est (1993), Sud (1999), De L’Autre Côté (2002) and Là-bas (2006).
To celebrate, my text on Là-bas (2006), reproduced here below, and an excerpt of the film in accompaniment.
Director: Chantal Akerman
Producer(s): AMIP, Paradise Films, Chemah I.S., Le Fresnoy
Cinematographer: Chantal Akerman, Robert Fenz
Sound: Thierry de Halleux
Editor: Claire Atherton
Assistant Editor : Fabio Balducci
Duration: 78 minutes
Là-bas concludes Akerman’s series of films made between 1993 and 2006, based on the themes of place and displacement, physical and emotional space. While D’Est (1993), Sud (1999), De L’Autre Côté (2003) and Là-bas (2006) are frequently grouped as a foursome of essay films, a pairing of two and two seems more apt. D’Est and Sud examine a socio-historical event of the recent past, showing the wake it has left in the lives of local inhabitants. In them, a major transition has taken place, and the films’ subjects must find a way to remember and rebuild. De L’Autre Côté and Là-bas are about the presence of containment and isolation in the everyday; the subjects in these films must themselves become transitory in order to cope with chronic problems or unmoving obstacles.
Là-bas takes place in Tel Aviv, Israel, but the film is never directly about Israel or its culture. Nor is it directly about Akerman, herself; viewers catch only a fleeting glimpse of her, and her rough and sensuous smoker’s voice is only heard intermittently in voiceover. In one of these voiceovers, Akerman gives a wry description of her project: “I stay here in the apartment, and I eat what my landlord has left, and I read very complicated books about the Jews. I take notes, I reread them, I try to understand. Sometimes I understand. Or I get a whiff of something, something that is already there inside of me, but I can’t express.” At the beginning of the film, she juxtaposes the suicide of her aunt and of the mother of Israeli author Amos Oz, the former in Brussels and the latter in Tel Aviv. “Was it for both of them a sort of exile, wherever they were?” she asks. These diaristic soliloquies and the partitioned images which accompany them evoke the difficult negotiation of exile and return that Akerman and others touched by the Jewish diaspora must undertake.
Là-bas is comprised almost entirely of static long shots. Most of these are of the high-rise apartment buildings directly opposite Akerman’s own vacation apartment, seen through the rattan window blinds. Twice, we see footage shot outdoors at the seashore. The first sequence is a welcome release from the confines of the apartment, but by the second sequence, this watery expanse overwhelms the senses, triggering a desire to return to the familiar, dark living room. In the last four minutes of film, the camera pans and zooms rapidly across the open sky. The montage provokes anxiety and a dizzying feeling of disorientation, the same emotional states Akerman has been describing, perhaps suggesting an ontological state of Israel itself.
At first, it seems Akerman is spying on her neighborhood. The subject matter, the fixity of the camera, the medium of digital video and its generic deep focus immediately calls to mind surveillance footage. The film’s ambient noise, however, complicates this interpretation. Sounds of street traffic and hollering children mingle liberally with sounds coming from the unseen interior of the apartment, like the click of a gas burner on the stovetop, footfalls, objects moved around on a counter or table, or the tapping of computer keys. There is a profound ambivalence between what can and cannot be seen. The gaze of Akerman’s camera is not all-seeing and impassive, but rather unseeingly subjective in nature. This, too, she supposes, is linked to Belgium and her past, as she spent much of her childhood gazing out the window at children she was not allowed to go play with. “Now I’m in the habit of looking out the window,” she says. “I look and I get all up inside myself.”
If, amidst these dark meditations on personal and national prisons, Là-bas also affirms life, this affirmation is found in Akerman’s devotion to creative work, in many senses a direct result of and an antidote to her non-belonging. The man with a balcony and a rooftop garden directly opposite Akerman’s window embodies this devotion, suggesting that Akerman’s work as a Belgian Jew reconciling herself to Israel is in many senses collective work. The man tends restlessly to his potted plants, watering, inspecting and repositioning them as a contemporary Candide would, cultivating his garden. Akerman does the same, learning through her filmmaking to “put down roots in space.”