It is hard to believe that the tiny, almost fragile woman I met last weekend at Tel Aviv's Cinema Hotel is the same person who directed such esteemed films as "Jeanne Dielman" (1976), "From the East" (1993) and "I, You, She, He" (1974) (the latter in which she also acted in an unforgettable lesbian sex scene.) French film director Chantal Akerman is Jewish and comes from a family of Holocaust survivors. Since she was a young girl, Akerman has paid frequent, routine visits to Israel. This time however, she had two particularly good reasons for stopping in: the opening of her exhibition "Spiral Autobiography" at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art today and the screening of her new film "Down There" at the Jerusalem Film Festival on Friday.
Akerman's relationship with Israel is complex. This is why "Down There" is her first movie filmed in Israel - but one could say she was here, but not really here, for the filming. During the production, Akerman shut herself in an apartment on Tel Aviv's Jonah the Prophet Street and filmed what she saw through the closed window. In her film, connection with the outside world is manifested in three telephone conversations and two or three brief trips to the beach.
Static shots of the apartment's internal space are combined in the film with shots from outside the window, which mostly depict the everyday life of an elderly couple who spend most of their time on their balcony. The shots are full of beauty with an inner time and space of their own, in which hardly anything happens, yet much happens nonetheless. Akerman's voice is heard in the background, reading extracts from a diary she is writing with comments on Judaism, cinema and her family. In one of the conversations she says a few words in Hebrew and thus affirms her sense of belonging to this place.
In the film, as in a number of her previous films, there is a feeling of loneliness. This time it seems as though this feeling is more claustrophobic and oppressive. The dark space, the light that enters from outside, compacted with the inability to go out, create a sense of strangled space. The moments of optimism lie "down there," in the figures she films on the beach.
In your films, you discuss political and social issues, whereas you chose to shut yourself in this time. Is this an escape?
"No. Everyday life is difficult for me. As far as I am concerned, any everyday activity, even going to the supermarket to buy bread, is a heroic gesture. I talk about this in the film. I think this is the result of my being of the second generation [of Holocaust survivors.] This is the reason I am in a wonderful city like Tel Aviv and choose to stay home. As a girl, I couldn't go out to the street to play with other children. My mother was afraid, so I would watch them playing through the window. This film is more about the woman who grew up from that girl, about her relationship with herself, about the prison she feels she is in, a prison that came from my mother and is with me everywhere."
Israel of fantasies
Akerman defines her film as a philosophical treatise, an intimate reflection of inner thoughts about placement and identity and about her constant sense of self as an exile. The conversation about the film encourages her to talk about the connection between her biography as a Jew and as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and her film, something she had refrained from doing previously.
"In the film I ask whether I will live all my life with a feeling of exile, and I don't have an answer to this," she says. "My aunt, who after the war came from Poland to Brussels, committed suicide. I'm not saying that all the people who live here feel exiled, but I, as a person who belongs to the the second generation of Auschwitz, feel like an exile everywhere. I love Israel and there are moments when I feel that I need to stay here, but then I go back to Paris. There I feel entirely in exile, and in fact that is how I feel everywhere.
"The title of the film in French is La-bas. When French Jews say to each other 'tu vas la bas,' we usually mean 'are you going to Israel?' We have the place where we live and we have "down there."
What lures you to this quarrelsome place?
"The life. The energy. I feel that this is still a young place. In France there are people who talk about their great-grandmother who has a house in Normandy. Who among us has a place that belonged to their great-grandmother? No one. Everything has vanished. I feel that people have built this place to get out of the prison, of this situation, of being humiliated as a Jew. I'm not saying that I am humiliated as a Jew but I still feel like an 'other' in France. I am an 'other' there, and I am also an 'other' here. The sabra [native-born Israeli] has adopted a new way of speaking. This is good but there is also something bad about it. We must not lose our cultural roots entirely. Something must remain.
"I was born and I grew up in Brussels. I attended a Jewish school there and I was in the Dror Zionist movement. I have been living in Paris for many years now and I've never lived here, but Israel has always been part of my fantasy world. All that we talked about was Israel. I know that the entire Zionist and pioneering outlook no longer exists, but for me it is still part of my imaginary Israel."
Why was it important to you to speak Hebrew in the film?
"I wanted to say that the Hebrew language and Israel are part of me, they're in my blood. To this day I still find myself humming Hebrew songs we learned in the youth movement."
A mother-daughter conversation
In some of Akerman's films, as in the current film, meaning is manifested through layers of language and text. Her cracked voice is heard in the background, telling a story, creating the atmosphere, sometimes in French, sometimes in English. Other films like "From the East" and "Jeanne Dielman" are constructed mainly of prolonged silences that give room to action or observation.
Silence as opposed to endless talk - the two extremes that characterize her work - are also expressed in two central installations in her exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The first installation, "From the East / The Installation: Bordering on Fiction," is based on a scene from her film "From the East," which was shot at the beginning of the 1990s on a trip from Brussels to Russia via Germany and Poland. Akerman's camera observes everyday life from something of a distance: people waiting at a crosswalk, in motion, in lines for the bus and for bread, laden down with bundles at train stations.
"In the film, there isn't any explicit reference to sites connected to Jewish life and history in Eastern Europe," writes curator Edna Moshenson in the exhibit catalogue. Nevertheless, it is difficult to avoid envisioning Jews on their way to the camps in the depictions of long lines and people laden with bundles. Akerman conjured up the images, as well, during the filming. The video installation is comprised of 24 scenes from the film, each of them four-minutes long, which are projected on 24 screens. The seemingly technical move - breaking the linear film into a number of stories - creates an essential difference. There is not one story created over time, but rather a number of stories happening simultaneously to create an overall picture of a situation.
The second installation, "Walking Alongside one's Shoelaces in an Empty Refrigerator" (from 2004) is made up of spiral-shaped fabric inscribed with text dealing with thoughts on cinema and her own work. The spiral leads into a room where a film of the director and her mother, who was the inspiration for many of the characters in her films, is projected. The intimate and moving conversation between the two begins with a simple request from the daughter that her mother translate for her (from Polish into French) a single page of the diary written by her grandmother who was murdered in Auschwitz. This is the first time that the mother, 79, talks to Akerman, 56, about the war.
"From what my mother did tell me, I knew that my grandmother had been a very special person," she says. "She was an artist, a painter. This is apparently why my mother always encouraged me to make films while my father was opposed to this. My grandmother was married to a cantor but on the Sabbath she would paint and go to the cinema. Imagine that in 1920, in a small village in Poland and a very religious environment, she dared to say, 'I am a woman.'"
Has the medium of video enabled you to touch upon the Holocaust in a way you haven't before?
"Yes and no. I think that also in earlier films of mine I touched upon it. For example in the film 'From the East,' all the people who are standing in line with their valises and waiting. This recalled sights from the concentration camps. But it is true that there is something about the video camera that enables more directness, more intimacy. There isn't a cameraman to whom you have to give instructions where to place the camera. You don't need to change the film every ten minutes. You can record even an hour consecutively. After a few minutes my mother forgot that there was a camera facing us. I didn't plan what happened. I didn't know where it was going."
How did your mother react?
"It touched her. Not only because of what she said but also because of the beautiful relationship between me and her, mother and daughter. You know that, in one way or another, my mother is in all of my films. I always speak in her name. This time it was she who sat in front of the camera and told her story."