What does it mean to watch your loved ones slowly succumb to the rigors of time? How on earth does one capture the fleeting essence of a parent’s very being? Is one able to suddenly capture a lifetime of stories once a person’s biological clock begins to run out? Will those stories even matter once the storyteller has departed this mortal coil? These are just a few of the challenging questions that form the bedrock of Chantal Akerman’s latest cinematic document, “No Home Movie.” They are also questions that I have pondered and continued to grapple with since my father succumbed to prostate cancer when I was sixteen.
Full disclosure, and at the risk of being deemed unworthy of my place in the NYFF Critic’s Academy: “No Home Movie” is actually my first interaction with Akerman’s work. Before the screening, I nervously asked others sitting in my general vicinity if I was making a poor decision choosing “No Home Movie” as my initial plunge into Akerman’s vigorously championed oeuvre. “Perhaps ‘Jeanne Dielman’ would be a better option?” and “You’ll probably enjoy it more if you’ve seen ‘Letters From Home'” seemed to be the general consensus with a, “No, this is going to be very boring” thrown in for good measure. However as the lights went down, I couldn’t help but feel excited after hearing the indelible Scout Tafoya’s truncated, yet deeply passionate articulation of his Akermania. As a fan of slow cinema, I was intrigued to witness a revered master’s use of stillness, and I was prepared for Akerman’s fascination with the minutiae of everyday existence. Surely Akerman’s cinematic fascinations were a wavelength that I could get on board with.
It would be ridiculous for “No Home Movie” to serve as a conversion tool, as it is not the type of film to sway non-believers or to gain new followers. In fact, the terms “film” or even “documentary” seem disingenuous when describing it. Akerman’s ethnographic observations at first glance come across as scattershot, even amateurish in both form and function. Long stretches of “No Home Movie’s” running time are merely extended shots of Akerman’s mother’s apartment in stasis – the only indication that the viewer has been situated inside of an apartment and not a mausoleum is when her mother occasionally shuffles into the gaze of the consumer grade digital camera. On two different occasions, Akerman explains to her mother that the reason she is capturing their Skype conversations on camera is to convey how current technology has eliminated the notion of distance: how can a person truly be separated from their loved ones when they can Skype or FaceTime! This idea is continually proven to be hollow due in large part to Akerman’s roving lifestyle — she checks in with her mother from NYC, Ohio, Paris, Israel, etc.
But her continued inability to have an actual, meaningful conversation with her mother proves that no amount of technology can plaster over the emotional holes so often present in the parent-child dynamic. In one of the most quietly devastating moments of “No Home Movie,” Akerman’s mother laments to Chantal’s sister that whenever they talk, Chantal never actually says anything. The conflict between Akerman’s desire, her need, to document and connect with her mother while she still can, appears to constantly be odds with the fact that she has kept her mother at an emotional arm’s length — intentionally or not — for the majority of her life.
“No Home Movie” is certainly a punishing watch, but that appears to be Akerman’s point. Watching a parent slowly wither away to nothing as you attempt to make your own emotional peace with them is arguably one of the most arduous task a person can undertake; it’s not shocking that “No Home Movie” is meant to be endured, not enjoyed. I would be lying if I didn’t admit to wondering more than once who would possibly want to watch “No Home Movie” other than Akerman’s immediate family. It is intimate in a way that primarily feels suffocating. If you have ever been the only other person in the room while a friend argues with their parent, then the initial emotional feelings that “No Home Movie” provokes will feel somewhat familiar. It wasn’t until a sequence during its second half that I realized Akerman was using “No Home Movie’s” small scope as a Trojan Horse of sorts. Akerman’s choice of camera immediately puts the viewer — whether they are conscious of it or not — into an extremely intimate mindset. The digital grain of her consumer camera coupled with abrupt cuts between scenes force one to recall the home movies of their youth, as well as the countless “home movies” that are made on smartphones every minute of every day.
I knew that Akerman had truly broken through to me after I found myself sobbing after a particularly crushing sequence near the end of the film. Following lunch with her sister and mother in her mother’s apartment, Akerman desperately pleads with her mother to tell her, more specifically her camera, a story — any story. Though her mother does not wish to ignore Chantal, she is so tired and weak that she can barely open her eyes, let alone resist napping. It is a beautiful and organic moment that shows how a parent and child continue to love each other even when their relationship has been frayed by internal and external sources.
It is also an almost an exact recreation of a video I took of my father during one of the last days in the hospital before he passed away. Much like Chantal I never appear on camera. Instead my video merely contains audio of my cracking sixteen year old voice, desperately pleading with my gaunt, fragile father in between sobs to, “Tell me anything, everything! Please… I don’t know what to do? What will I do without you?” My father, much like Chantal’s mother, does his best to talk to me, and reassure me, but he also can barely keep his eyes open; the cancer had spread throughout his entire body at this point. It was in this moment of emotional recognition that I felt a truly kindred spirit in Akerman. We had both had to come to grips with who we are in relation to our parents during their lives, and also during their slow deaths.
With the tragic news of Akerman’s death, I am forced again to consider “No Home Movie” in an even more tragic light. It is no longer just an ode to a mother. It now also stands as the last testament of a legendary filmmaker bearing her soul to her most kindred spirit – her camera – for a final time. What could be more essential?