A Filmmaker in Self-Imposed Exile

In the mid-1970s tourists were being warned by a concerned group of local citizens in New York City to steer clear of the Big Apple via a pamphlet campaign. Crime had risen dramatically since the late sixties, the city was reeling from a number of political and economic crises including a mass garbage workers’ strike, and unemployment was at an all time high, driving many residents to leave for the suburbs. The media began to refer to Manhattan as “Fear City” and actress Shirley MacLaine was quoted as saying NYC was “the Karen Quinlan of cities” (a reference to the teenager who lapsed into a coma in 1975 and lived in a permanent vegetative state for ten years before dying from pneumonia). It was during this period that Belgium filmmaker Chantal Akerman created one of her most personal and acclaimed films during a 1976 visit. News from Home is an autobiography of sorts and the director was no stranger to the city. She had lived there in 1971 but her movie is not a tourist’s view of the city. It shows us the kind of gritty urban environment that Martin Scorsese immortalized in 1976’s Taxi Driver.

A subway platform becomes a fixed composition in real time as people come and go on the subway line in NEWS FROM HOME (1976), directed by Chantal Akerman.

Despite this, Akerman’s visual essay, which has the feel of an experimental home movie and was shot on 16mm, is not a critique of the city but merely the backdrop for a deeply personal, contemplative mood piece on a mother-daughter relationship, specifically between the filmmaker and her own mother, an Auschwitz camp survivor. Akerman narrates News from Home but it consists solely of her reading letters from her mother that were first written to her in 1971 when she was living in NYC. Revisiting the city in 1976, Akerman captures the sense of dislocation and estrangement she was feeling through anonymous yet familiar aspects of the city such as an all-night diner, a subway platform, a deserted backstreet or a warehouse district which mirror the sense of loss and loneliness of the letters from home.

A scene from the contemplative 1976 film essay by Chantal Akerman – NEWS FROM HOME.

The cinematography of Jim Asbell and Babette Mangolte focuses exclusively on exteriors, many of them static compositions which are occasionally interrupted by people or vehicles moving across the frame (There are also a few inspired camera pans which capture moments at dusk like a parking attendant as he walks from the lot to his box-like office). This urban environment, which often looks like it is in a state of decay, is brought to life by an immersive sound design by Dominique Dalmasso and Larry Haas using traffic and street noise to accompany and sometimes clash with Akerman’s understated narration.

NEWS FROM HOME (1976), directed by Chantal Akerman.

At 85 minutes, News from Home might sound like an experiment that could become boring and interminable but Akerman transforms it into something moving and poetic which is also underlined by a dramatic tension that comes from the letters of the filmmaker’s mother and sometimes take on a manipulative tone. In one of the first letters, the mother reveals, “We’re not angry that you left without a word but do keep us informed. You’re always in our hearts. I dream about you and hope you’re happy. Your letters cheer me up so keep writing.”

New York City in 1976 becomes the backdrop for a contemplative experimental film by Chantal Akerman about dislocation and estrangement in NEWS FROM HOME.

The viewer is left to imagine what Akerman tells her mother but you only hear the mother’s responses to her letters from which you are able to perceive various autobiographical details about the filmmaker’s family. Birthdays, weddings, illnesses and holidays become repetitive and frequent letter topics (along with the mother’s frequent mention of including $20 dollars in her correspondence) but other patterns emerge as well. Akerman does not keep up her correspondence on a consistent basis that pleases her mother and receives an occasional guilt-trip remark like, “Try and write. It’s all I have left.”

A scene from Chantal Akerman’s NEWS FROM HOME (1976).

Sometimes the mother’s concern for her daughter takes a more confrontational approach as when she pleads, “Keep me up to date. It’s getting annoying. You never answer my questions and it’s bothering me.” What makes all of this compelling is the juxtaposition of Akerman’s personal narration against the time capsule snapshots of New York City cityscapes and street life which emphasize the separation between them (Who wouldn’t worry about their daughter in such a place?).

NEWS FROM HOME (1976), directed by Chantal Akerman.

You never see the filmmaker or her mother but you often see New Yorkers staring directly at the camera lens. Some of them turn away in disinterest after a few seconds but others gaze boldly at the cinematographer as if transfixed by the image of someone filming inside a crowded subway car.

A scene from Chantal Akerman’s elegy for New York City – NEWS FROM HOME (1976).

For permanent residents and even tourists who visited the city in 1976, News from Home might conjure up feelings of nostalgia for another era. For one thing, it captures the look and mood of its locale at that time from the bad 1970s fashions to the feeling of a hot summer night where people sit outside in chairs by open doorways on city streets. Occasionally you might even be able to recognize a specific business or building glimpsed in the film such as the Zenith-Godley Company at 176 Duane Street, a butter and eggs wholesaler from the 1930s which was converted into a residential/commercial space in the 1990s.

NEWS FROM HOME (1976), directed by Chantal Akerman.

The bravura closing shot of the film – a ten minute take filmed from the back of a Staten Island ferry as it leaves the harbor – is a perfect example of Akerman’s real time compositions. It is almost like looking at a famous still photograph except that it has a life of its own. The fixed frame continues to reveal new details as the city recedes into the distance and the gray overcast sky and squawking seagulls become more prominent on the horizon. It provides the perfect goodbye to a city where the director began to nourish and develop her own filmmaking style and aesthetic.

New Yorkers hang out on street corners and open doorways on a hot summer night in Chantal Akerman’s evocative film essay, NEWS FROM HOME (1976).

News from Home was made a year after Akerman’s artistic breakthrough and most famous film, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), which recently topped Sight and Sound’s magazine’s world-renowned Greatest Films of All Time Critics’ poll of 2022, claiming the number one spot. News from Home is just as impressive as that game-changing masterpiece and many critics agreed as well. Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Chicago Reader wrote, “This is one of the best depictions of alienation of exile that I know” and Nicholas Elliott of Bomb magazine stated, “News from Home is a gorgeous enigma, a simple formula that causes one to reel with emotion. How can the observation of an impervious city matched with humdrum voiceover make the viewer feel so much? The answer is in how close Akerman brings one to her experience… By stepping out of the way, Akerman allows one to see and hear what she sees and hears. This is more than a director’s perspective: she is making room for the audience member to stand in her place.”

The memorable ten minute closing shot from Chantal Akerman’s NEWS FROM HOME (1976).

Although News from Home was featured at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, it never had an official U.S. release and wasn’t seen here until a July 1989 screening in New York City. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, News from Home finally received a U.S. home video release in January 2010 when it was included in a DVD box set entitled Chantal Akerman in the Seventies. Among the other titles included are La Chambre (1972), Hotel Monterey (1973), Je Tu Il Elle (1974) and Les Rendez-Vous d’Anna (1979). This is a highly recommended sampler of the director’s earlier work.

Other links of interest:

https://www.artnews.com/art-news/reviews/chantal-akerman-my-mother-laughs-review-12908/

https://variety.com/2015/film/news/chantal-akerman-feminist-cinema-pioneer-dies-dead-1201611405/

www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/may/18/welcome-to-fear-city-the-inside-story-of-new-yorks-civil-war-40-years-on

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