Chantal Akerman once described her concerns as follows: “Language, documentary, fiction, Jews and the Second Commandment.” Many critics would add feminism to the list. However, Akerman, whose first solo exhibition in this country opens today at the Camden Arts Centre in North-West London, resists the idea of being categorised.
“I am a woman and I am Jewish, I’m a film-maker and I’m a writer, so you cannot just put me in one box,” she says.
There is one box she can be placed in, however. It is the one labelled “Europe’s most important experimental film-maker of her generation”. She began making films in the 1970s when she was in her early 20s, and over the past 30 years her work has been shown both in cinemas and galleries.
Akerman was born in 1950 in Brussels to Polish refugee parents. While her father spent the war in hiding, her mother spent 18 months in Auschwitz.
“My mother arrived in Brussels in 1938 from a small town near Krakow. But strangely enough, in 1942 or 1943, she was taken back to Auschwitz, which was just 30 miles from where she grew up,” Akerman explains. “Her parents died there and a lot of her family.”
Her mother’s experiences greatly affected Akerman’s childhood. “My mother was totally different from the mothers of my friends. She would never separate from me. In a way, my life belongs to her.
“When I was a child, she complained that I was anorexic so they sent me to places to get me to eat. When I look at pictures of myself, I was just a normal-looking child. It was her fantasy. Because she was starving for such a long time, she wanted to push me to eat. I wanted to eat for her, to give her pleasure, but I became anxious about it.
“And then when I was 13, my father started to be annoyed because I would have to get married and I had to be slim for that. It was a total double-bind.” Despite this, it was her mother who encouraged her to have a career rather than marry young.
“My mother was so resentful that she did not have a career because after the war she was broken. She remembered her late mother, who had painted and drawn and made couture clothes, and she saw in me a continuation of her.”
So the young Akerman started film school, but only lasted three months. Why did she leave? “We were not doing movies,” she complains. “We studied physics, chemistry, mathematics. I didn’t want to learn any more. I wanted to work, to do and to create.”
Instead, she made her way to New York, where she met the leading lights in the world of experimental film-making and began working herself.
“I had a feeling that I had to go [to New York],” she says. “That it was a freer place, a more open place. All these crazy people were in the street and were talking. I then understood that you don’t need to tell a story to make a film.” One of her earliest films, Hotel Monterey, made in New York in 1972, will be shown at the Camden Arts Centre. She describes the film as “an experimental documentary, abstract and silent. The hotel has now burnt down and there is no place like that in New York any more. In a way, all my films are archives and explore a particular era, as this one does.”
So how does the Second Commandment affect her work? “It prohibits idolatry,” she says. “You cannot reproduce an image from the sky, the sea or the ground. You mustn’t prostrate yourself or you will be punished. That is why I always shoot face-to-face. So when you are watching my film, you are face-to-face. Therefore it is not an idolatrous image.”
Jewish themes have been noted in other parts of her work. Her film, Histories d’Ameriques, includes Jewish jokes.
“Jokes for Jews are mixed up with their malheur [misfortune]. Despite the pogroms and the killings during the Second World War, we make a joke about everything. It is a way of displacing the horror of the last century,” she says.
One of the films on show at Camden explores her family’s history. It is called To Walk Next to One’s Shoelaces in an Empty Fridge, the title referring to the fact that the artist never does up her shoelaces and that the fridge in her home was always empty because she was being encouraged to eat all the time. The work centres on her maternal grandmother’s diary.
“There is a diary that my grandmother left that she started when she was 15 in her little village in Poland in a very religious environment. She started the diary: ‘I am a woman’.
“Then my mother wrote something when she came back from the camp. Then a few years later I added something, and then, later again, my little sister also found it and also wrote something.”
The words from this diary are shown in the first part of the installation, then pictures of the four women, and finally you see Akerman and her mother speaking together, discussing their relationship. This intimate portrait highlights the close ties between Akerman’s family members, in particular the three generations of women.
“I am from a woman’s family,” she says. “My great-grandmother had three daughters and a son. My grandmother had two daughters and my mother had two daughters. My sister had a daughter and then finally a son. You should have seen my father with the son. He could not believe that finally there was a boy in the family.”