DOWN THERE (Chantal Äkerman, 2006)

Interviewer: “[S]o many of your films have to do with travel and moving from place to place—”

Chantal Äkerman: “You mean nomadisme. Well, I’m Jewish. That’s all. So I’m in exile all the time. Wherever we go, we are in exile. Even in Israel, we are in exile.”

Traditionally, documentaries “document” external realities. In 2006, two major, masterful works, however, both using digital video, exemplified “interior documentaries” (as distinct from Stan Brakhage’s  “internal documentary” charting the birth of his child): Jon Jost’s Passages, from the U.S.,and Chantal Äkerman’s Là-bas, from France and Belgium. Both of these are intensely personal works that admit a high degree of abstraction; both are in-depth revelations of the state of mind of their creators. Both works are inexhaustibly beautiful and haunting.

There is, though, a fundamental difference between them: Whereas Passages centers on the loss of a child, the mangling of Jost’s individual life by an ex-partner’s illegal separation of him and their daughter, Là-bas reveals the intersection of Äkerman’s personal history and the history of a people. In a seaside Tel Aviv apartment where she is staying while teaching in Israel, Äkerman totes the latter as an integral, defining part of the former. At root, Là-bas is about the persistence of the Holocaust in contemporary Jewish life, memory and imagination.

Äkerman achieves here stillness and quiet; her static compositions, in mostly muted beiges and browns, are mostly inside her temporary apartment, the camera quite often gazing out a window at those across the way or down below in the street. A mildly fluttering curtain slightly relaxes the boxed-in suggestion, the sense of Äkerman’s entrapment—and of our own sense of renting space in her psyche. Among the sounds that soothe the quiet are the chirpings of birds and the droning of airplanes, the latter doubling as repeated projections of Äkerman’s landing in Israel and our own “landing” in her mind.

Now and then there is another sound: the shrill trill of Äkerman’s ringing phone. Someone, concerned, is inquiring how she is; Äkerman does her best to be reassuring.

Äkerman ventures outside to go to the beach: a lovely visit. This respite, though, becomes fearful, retroactively, when Äkerman learns that the beach was bombed after she left. Much of Là-bas mines the idea of shifting perspective for the purpose of establishing this as the foundation for another idea. Airplanes seemingly landing might also be taking off; the title, meaning “down there,” refers to Israel from the vantage of Europe but also refers to the street below once Äkerman, herself, is in Israel. It might also reflect the view from a plane in flight. There are reviewers, though, who miss the point that whatever Äkerman’s shifts in perspective, she is always a Jew, and consciously so, and therefore constantly vulnerable.

Nothing happens. (The bombing—the most salient “event” in the piece—occurs offscreen.) Precisely. The static shots; the lack of plot: the “nothing” encapsulates the stillness that cloaks the turbulence of Äkerman’s historic identity. Existence is. Identity is. Äkerman’s Jewishness is. The formal rigor, contemplative aura, long takes, and near perfect stillness in Là-bas all correspond to its is-ness. Perhaps the work it is most like, again one using digital video equipment, is the phenomenal Five Long Takes Dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu (2003), by Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, whose home base, like Brussels-born Äkerman’s, is, now, Paris, and whose tremendous onscreeen patience suggests the exquisite, clarifying pressure of eternity generating Wordsworthian “spots of Time.”

Under the pressure of Jewish history, both recent and prior, Äkerman employs a similar style. This style conveys her sensibility and spirit, particularly as her person—if you will, her image—is seldom on display in her minimalist mise-en-scène. When she is speaking on the telephone, we hear her voice but do not see her, and her voice is what we encounter in voiceover narration, where she may be sharing with us while not directly speaking to us. She is composing a diary as well as a “film”—something to help certify her bit of Jewish history. There is no telling what may happen to her, after all; who knows? Her modest record may count for something. Her sheer absence from so many frames—although in another sense she is “visible” everywhere—“embodies” the sense that she may “disappear” entirely, either by dint of diaspora, or worse. The calm of Là-bas distills, as it conceals, tension.

No, it is not calm; it is poise that is fraught with anxiety in and around dreams of Jewish extinction that permeate the world. Perhaps the stillness of Là-bas ultimately reflects Äkerman’s desire to hold onto her loved ones, to her commitment to the departed, including the Six Million, and to us, who may be anonymously providing her, in her imagination, with some measure of refuge. However much her compulsive “nomadism” translates into aching restlessness, we at least are “fixed.” We represent a kind of home.

Là-bas is the most brilliant and overwhelming work by Äkerman that I’ve seen since her incomparable masterpiece, D’est (1993). It radiates humanity and inner strength.

Grand Prize (co-winner), Marseille Festival of Documentary Film.

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