Chantal Akerman: a retrospective

A review of the retrospective and
challenges of film access and preservation

by Angela Martin

A very extraordinary retrospective is, and has been, taking place at the ICA in London of the work of Belgian filmmaker, Chantal Akerman. The programme is extraordinary because this is the first attempt at a complete retrospective ever, anywhere, of Akerman’s work, and because it has been so lovingly and so carefully curated and presented by filmmakers Joanna Hogg (Exhibition 2014, Archipelago 2011, Unrelated 2008) and Adam Roberts (films for gallery shows, dance films for choreographer Jonathan Burrows, Mickey Finn 1991). Hogg and Roberts – the latter having fortuitously worked in Chantal Akerman in Ma chambre (1975)film acquisition – co-founded the collective, A Nos Amours, in 2011. Its project is “dedicated to programming over-looked, under-exposed or especially potent cinema. [It] invites film-makers and others to advocate and present films that they admire or would like to see on a big screen [and] believes in the value of watching film as a shared experience.”

The retrospective is also extraordinary – though perhaps not surprisingly so to WFTHN members – because, although Hogg and Roberts were determined to show women’s work within their screening programme, they found it difficult to find women filmmakers whose work they could locate and access (a blog on this issue will follow in the near future). Akerman, who is a true auteur, was one of the clear choices, despite access difficulties.

Chantal Akerman's News from Home (1977) posterChantal Akerman was born in 1950 in Brussels. Her career-choice – or perhaps at least, at that time, her passion for filmmaking – was inspired by Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1967). She decided to apply to the Brussels film school l’INSAS (Institut Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle et des Techniques de Diffusion), which had been founded in 1962. But (despite its growing reputation) the school did not work for her: she left after only a few months and began to make films regardless, independently developing her own creativity as she went since “I didn’t know what I was doing”.

Many of us working in and on women’s filmmaking in the 1970s and 80s were familiar with her earlier films: Je Tu Il Elle (1975); Jeanne Dielmann, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976); News from Home (1977); Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978). Some may have seen Golden Eighties (1986), Nuit et jour (1991); more, later, knew La Captive (2000). But very little else from before or in between. La Captive is now the only Akerman film available in the UK, so the films A Nos Amours has sourced have variable quality, though Hogg and Roberts have sought the very best available for each title. For News from Home, for example, a “lovely but damaged” 16mm print in French was shown as a double bill on the same night as a digital copy with very poor sound. One of the effects of the retrospective is that Akerman will now demand a new digital version of this film; another is that she is thinking of creating a foundation to look after her work and the condition of its presentation.

Chantal Akerman's Golden Eighties (1986)Although it has been possible to show 35mm prints of, for example, some of the earlier films mentioned above as well as Toute une nuit (1982) and J’ai faim, j’ai froid (1984), or 16mm prints, e.g., Le 15/18 (1973), other current conditions of the films include the existence of only analogue videotape versions, like Un jour Pina a demandé (1983) or Portrait d’une paresseuse (1986). Sometimes there were prints available, but their rights were not, or vice versa. Several of the films did not have sub-titles, and Hogg and Roberts provided these themselves for simultaneous projection.

Akerman’s total output comprises 40+ titles (the + depending on where you look), so even if a complete retrospective didn’t work out, because location and access were still an issue, there could nevertheless be a retrospective of great interest. In fact, the 25-event programme (including a few programmes of shorts) has been made possible with not only extensive curating work by Hogg and Roberts, but also, as the collective put it, “the wonderful financial support” of the BFI, Wallonie-Bruxelles International, and Film Hub London (managed by Film London). It is running – and has been – monthly at the ICA, in Chantal Akerman's D'est (1993)chronological order – and will continue until May 2015. The next screening, Nuit et jour (1991), will take place on Thursday 11 December.  The first screening, of Akerman’s first three shorts – Saute ma villa (1968), L’Enfant aimé ou je joue à être une femme mariée (1971), Hotel Monterey (1972) – took place on 26 November 2013; the last will be of La folie Almayer (2011).

The retrospective included an interestingly structured ‘Chantal Akerman Day’, on Sunday 12 October, a gathering of “audience, scholars, artists, filmmakers and curators” to celebrate her work. It started with a delightful and moving interview by Chantal (2007) of her mother, Natalia Akerman, in her kitchen in Brussels – moving, because her mother died within the last year. There were some short films by artists who had been inspired by Akerman – Amber Jacobs, Pia Ilonka, Amy Croft and Sarah Pucill. Chantal arrived for the afternoon after a difficult journey. Griselda Pollock, Muriel Temple and Alison Rowley all gave exemplary presentations and Chantal joined Alison for a conversation.

Chantal Akerman during the shoot of La folie Almayer (2011)In addition, virtually every film has been introduced by a filmmaker or film theorist, and A Nos Amours hope to have links to sound recordings of these. Their site already includes a number of interesting blogs and programme notes.

It is hoped that some of the films will tour, to  Leeds, Tyneside, Cambridge and Manchester – see the A Nos Amours website.

The website is still a little complex to navigate but these direct links may help, to a rich collection of relevant resources, including books and articles:

With thanks to Adam Roberts for an extensive conversation about the Akerman project.

Angela Martin is one of the WFTHN co-ordinators, and the author of ‘Chantal Akerman’s Films: a dossier’, in Feminist Review n3, 1979, and ‘Refocusing Authorship in Women’s Filmmaking’ in Women Filmmakers: Refocusing, (eds) Jacqueline Levitin, Judith Plessis and Valerie Raoul (UBC Press: Vancouver and Toronto, 2003).

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