From YouTube cat videos to Australia’s Funniest Home Video Show, it is hard to think of an artistic practice more domesticated than home movies. Upon the spike of availability of user-friendly commercial filmmaking technologies during the 1950s in particular, Patricia R Zimmermann and other film historians noted the promise of amateur filmmaking as a radical, transformative device able to grant voices to those who had previously been denied them, a potent tool for activism in particular. But the ideologically driven quarantining of this technology to the domestic sphere – the dreaded home movie – effectively defanged its potential, reducing it to little more than ‘a privatized hobby for families rather than as a means of communication in the public sphere’.
This brief history reveals, even just in the very name of Chantal Akerman’s final film, a curious tension between the personal and the political. No Home Movie is, at first ironically perhaps, precisely that: a home movie consisting primarily of conversations between Akerman and her mother Natalia (Nelly), recorded in the months before Nelly’s death. Yet this title also contains an important negation of the ‘domesticated’ history of amateur filmmaking traditions when brought into the family home.
Although centered for the most part in Nelly’s house in Brussels, No Home Movie includes important structural shots in the world beyond as the director travels, her documentary showing her stationed in different locations as she checks in with her mother, back home. On numerous occasions, Akerman explicitly states that the goal of her work is to show how small the world is, and these are important moments that remind us not only what she is doing in this film, but what she maintained throughout her lengthy filmography: exploring vital aspects of identity and self through an often poetic privileging of cinema’s temporal and spatial dynamics.
No Home Movie is a haunting, haunted film, both personally and politically. Aside from an active reclamation of the historically de-venomed practice of amateur filmmaking techniques and traditions, the title itself offers other readings. Of these, the notion of homelessness – ‘no home’ – is simultaneously present, particularly in how it explores Nelly’s experience as a Polish Jew, an immigrant who came to Belgium after surviving Auschwitz. On top of this is the omnipresent knowledge that – with the death of her mother at age 86 in April 2014, with whom she clearly had a strong, loving although complex relationship – Chantal Akerman herself perhaps lost a vital sense of grounding. Hospitalised with depression after the premiere of No Home Movie, Akerman ended her own life in Paris on 5 October 2015.
Yet to frame this (or any of Akerman’s work) simply in terms of the tragedy this summary evokes, misses the greater point and enduring legacy of her aggressively ideological filmmaking practice more broadly. Her first film, for example, was the 1968 short film Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town), which features a young Akerman returning to her apartment, cleaning, dancing, and finally committing suicide. Less a macabre prophecy than an adamant feminist manifesto, Akerman’s films at their best shared similar fascinations with domestic ritual. This is nowhere more visible than her most famous film, the three-and-a-half hour long Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975).
With its discussions of the nutritional value of potatoes and the technical hiccups that are a seemingly inescapable part of Skype communication, No Home Movie demands we surrender to the beauty of domestic banality and the poetic textures of the everyday. For better or for worse, in Akerman’s films the everyday is rendered anything but ordinary. For audiences new to her work, No Home Movie might belie her remarkable craft as a filmmaker, but for those familiar with her impressive oeuvre, these lo-fi filmmaking aesthetics – filmed on handheld cameras and her BlackBerry – demand viewers resist the idea of domestic vérité as depoliticised, and to look through the screen itself into something more poetic, something more profound. Akerman’s films demand active participation, and No Home Movie is no different.
In her foundational study of Akerman’s work, Ivone Margulies’s 1996 book Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday contains a similar audacity in its title to that which exists in films like Jeanne Dielman, Saute ma ville and No Home Movie. Akerman asserts the right to value the spaces in between, and the gaps where we are told ‘nothing happens’. Akerman fought to articulate time and time again that in these spaces there is not only meaning, but one of profound importance to women and the connections forged between them. This is nowhere clearer, more poignant and ultimately more moving than in No Home Movie. Built around connections forged by links both historical and biological between mother and daughter, it is a fundamentally warm film, reminding us that ‘home’ is always about people, not places.
With the repeated visual motif of empty chairs – in her mother’s house, in her mother’s garden – No Home Movie is a movie stained by a powerful sense of spaces filled and unfilled. It is a film about the hazy terrain between presence and absence, of talking but not telling. Like life itself perhaps, the film can only conclude with an inevitable stillness, but in Akerman’s own unique way, even this is rendered somehow simultaneously familiar and strange. This is no home movie, and this was no ordinary filmmaker.
No Home Movie is screening as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival on 29 July 2016 and 7 August 2016.