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Chantal Akerman - Biography

Chantal Akerman, born June 6, 1950, is a Brussels-born and now Paris-based filmmaker, writer, actor, producer and composer, and one of the most important European directors of her generation. As a teenager, she saw Godard's Pierot le fou and realized that filmmaking could be personal and experimental. Akerman started making her own films in the late '60s and gave a new meaning to the term "independent film" as an embodiment of pure independence and creativity.

Akerman has made over 40 works – from 35mm features to video essays to experimental documentaries, including Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles; Saute my ville (Blow up my town); News from Home; Les Rendez-vous d 'Anna; Je, tu, il, elle; Window Shopping; Toute une nuit (All night long); Les Annèes 80 (The Eighties); Nuit et jour (Night and Day); D'Est (From the East); Portrait d'une jeune fille de la fin des annèes 60 à Bruxelles (Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the1960s in Brussels); Un Divan à New York (A Couch in New York); and most recently, Sud and La Captive. In 1995 Akerman began experimenting with video installations and exhibiting her work in museums and galleries as well as in art-house theaters. Her video installations, last exhibited at the Venice Art Biennale 2001 and Kassel Documenta 2002, and documentaries display an intensive personal gaze, most notably in Selfportrait / Autobiography: Work in Progress.

Each film of Akerman is a world unto itself; they are often shot in real time in a space that is part of the character's identity. She often depicts women at work and at home, women's relationships with men, women, children, food, love, sex, romance, art. Each frame is carefully composed, and to blink is to miss something crucial, as every succeeding moment is pregnant with the expectation that something is about to happen. Akerman's parents were Holocaust survivors from Poland, and the "nothing" they refused to talk about became the core of her inspiration. The weight of history is evident in every moment of her work, though she is interested in the history with the small 'h'. She films the life on the margins, and her subversive strategy comes through a focus on minutiae, on the seemingly mundane aspects of daily life. The main protagonists of her films sometimes remind us of the celebrated flâneurs who find the hidden wonders tucked away in the corners, and sometimes they resemble the automatons that emerge in the tasks of daily lives. What Akerman brings out are the unforeseen glitches in routine and the dissymmetry in the known patterns of life. Nevertheless, many have noticed that besides showing the troublesome complexity of human existence, Akerman is also a romantic. Her films are full with music, magic of chance, yearning and hope.

The plotting in Akerman's films is minimal or nonexistent, and she is dedicated to the ellipses of conventional narrative cinema. In this way, she bravely avoids clichés, and the viewer is expected to approach her films with open eyes and mind. The excitement is within the characters, coming from the impossibility of situating oneself comfortably in the world. She often uses collage technique to insert the many autobiographical passages. Nevertheless, Akerman also investigates the hot-button themes like racism in the American South, illegal immigration, and terrorism in the Middle East.

Akerman's celebrated feature film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), was praised by the New York Times as "the first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of cinema." Seen by many as a seminal film of its era, it is also a feminist landmark and a meditation on the passage of time. The film shows three days in the life of Jeanne Dielman, a super-efficient housewife who earns money as a prostitute to support herself and her son. We see a woman's domestic routines, slowly and patiently, but they are soon to become ultimately disturbing and climaxing, as accounts regularly put it, in an act of shocking violence.

Akerman's recent film, Down There (2006) is shot almost entirely inside an apartment in Tel Aviv during her stay there. The film shows fixed-camera views, shot through the window blinds, focusing on the neighboring buildings and their residents who eat, drink, and smoke on their balconies. Akerman's voice interrupts this visual meditation, revealing the depression she is suffering from, and we also hear the worried voice of her mother on the telephone. Together with her coming out of this state in a self-imposed prison, we see the change in the visual domain as well: the blinds have been raised and she is slowly preparing to go home.

Women in Antwerp in November (2007) raises questions about basic human freedom to decide what to do with her/his own body from a particular perspective. In this film, we watch the now politically incorrect act of smoking cigarettes. Akerman tries to defend this right from her own perspective after being deprived of this moment of enjoyment, a private refuge that can also be sensual and erotic, even a point of resistance.

Chantal Akerman is a professor of film at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland where she conducts a summer workshop.