June 6, 1950, is the birthdate of Chantal Akerman, the avant-garde filmmaker whose life and work were indelibly infused with her being the child of Holocaust survivors.
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Writing in this paper at the time of her death, last year, Uri Klein described Akerman’s 1975 work “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” as “one of the greatest movies of the second half of the 20th century”, and he is not alone in that judgment. Yet most moviegoers have neither seen nor heard of either that film or its director. She truly was a director’s – or a critic’s -- director.
Chantal Akerman was born in Brussels to Polish-born working-class parents.
Her mother, the former Natalia Leibel, had immigrated to Belgium in 1938. A few years later, when the Germans occupied Belgium, they deported her to Auschwitz, where both of her parents would die.
Chantal’s father was also a Polish-born survivor. In Brussels, he owned a small glove factory.
Growing up, Chantal was a member of the Dror socialist-Zionist youth movement. Her life changed in 1965, when she saw the film “Pierrot le Fou,” by Jean-Luc Godard, a dark and nihilistic crime movie. She decided on the spot that she was going to make movies.
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She dropped out of high school the next year, and although she enrolled in a Brussels film school, she quit that after three months. “I thought we going to make films, but we were studying chemistry, physics," she told an interviewer years later.
Instead, she dove into making her first movie, in 1968, a 13-minute film called “Saute ma Ville” (“Blow Up My Town”), in which she appeared as a young woman frolicking about the kitchen before turning on the gas and lighting a match, with the expected results. To finance the movie, Akerman sold shares in its production on the Antwerp Diamond Exchange, raising $300.
She soon moved to New York, where she was a nude model in an art class, and spent her evenings watching art films at the Anthology Film Archives.
Over the course of her career, Akerman made some 40 films, plus a number of video installations that were exhibited in museums and galleries. Her work did not follow the rules of commercial filmmaking, and her focus was often on the day-to-day lives of women, with long shots of housework and unromanticized depictions of sex.
“Jeanne Delman” was her first feature, and it starred the popular French actress Delphine Seyrig. Over its three and a half hours, we see the middle-aged Jeanne doing chores around the house, feeding her teenage son, and on certain afternoons, receiving male customers for sex. The matter-of-fact presentation of her life builds up to a climactic act of violence.
Akerman was a lesbian, and her films sometimes included gay themes, but she was adamant in her refusal to have them shown in LGBT film festivals, saying she did not want to be “ghettoized.”
She also suffered from manic-depression, which worsened as she grew older. Periods of intense activity would be followed by breakdowns, and difficulty functioning.
By her account, her most intense emotional relationship was with her mother – Akerman’s 1977 “News from Home” was based around the letters she and Natalia wrote each other when Chantal was living in New York – and her final film, the documentary “No Home Movie,” consisted of conversations with her mother in the period before Natalia’s death, in 2014.
That film was screened at the Locarno Film Festival in August 2015, and was received with boos at a press screening. In an interview with The New York Times at the time, Chantal Akerman explained that wherever she lived, “going home” always meant “going to my mother.” But now, she said, “there is ‘no home’ anymore, because she isn’t there, and when I came the last time, the home was empty.”
Soon after that premiere, Akerman was hospitalized briefly in Paris for depression. Ten days after her return to her home there, she ended her life. According to a Twitter message posted by Gilles Jacob, the former head of the Cannes Film Festival, Akerman had arrived at a point where she “could not stand to live one more second.”