Chantal Akerman was a filmmaker who didn’t simply want to be seen as another “great woman filmmaker.” Yet to talk about the sort of things that she had pushed for when in control of the medium is a whole other topic entirely. In her best known film, Jeanne Dielman, she tells a story of a housewife doing her chores over the course of three days over a period of a little over three hours – how exactly must one follow up such a feat? There we have News from Home a significantly shorter film, but also one that carries a unique sort of beauty to it too. While it may not have a story in the traditional sense of the word, News from Home still remains so stunning on the ground that it remains ever so personal for the Belgian filmmaker, with so little being said so explicitly.
In November of 1971, Chantal Akerman lived in New York City, where she befriended filmmaker Jonas Mekas and even her soon-to-be recurring collaborator Babette Mangolte, who later shot Jeanne Dielman. Working with Mangolte, she created this montage of long takes of New York City as she reads letters from her mother on top of the footage that she has. There’s no interruption from music whatsoever, nor is there any sort of a plot, but as Chantal Akerman crafts this portrait of her own home whilst reading letters from her beloved mother from back in Belgium, News from Home tells a personal story of being detached even from what you love most, and without a narrative in the traditional sense, it still remains so beautifully resonant.
To Chantal Akerman herself, there truly is no place like home, whether it be within the streets of New York City or in Belgium, where she is still together with her family. Yet the emotional core of News from Home can be felt from the text that Chantal reads over the footage of New York City as it sometimes contrasts the tone that can be felt in the letters she received from her mother. You see people who are walking down the streets or in the subways simply minding their own business, yet listening as Chantal reads her letters over the footage you can also get a better picture of what does it feel like to be one of those people, alienated from the rest of the population, and wanting to find a place in the world surrounding yourself.
News from Home is a film that also begs the question regarding where do you truly find yourself at home. It rings too clearly to Chantal Akerman that New York City is a place that is so dear to her, but her mother still wants to know what everything truly feels like for her to be away from home. It could be said that News from Home perfectly captures what does it feel like to be in a state of solace, where you also find yourself in awe at everything that surrounds you but you still find yourself struggling on the inside with so much else that is going on in your personal life. No moments better capture this feeling than that of the footage shot within the subway, where you see people plan out where in the city they’re commuting to, or even from watching the train come by from the other side of the aisle.
It feels so painful to imagine yourself in a position where even at home you still feel alien to your own surroundings, especially as you have something to continually chase you back wherever you go. The letters from Chantal’s mother slowly grow tender after moving from a state of passive-aggressiveness, yet there’s something devastating to be found in the sadness from the lack of Chantal’s actual response. When you find yourself in a state of awe, it’s worth asking whether you truly feel as free as you really want to believe in. Nothing better captures the vibe of New York City than being able to ask yourself that question, but the more you hear about what’s going on at home, you also feel compelled to respond back – as having all of this hang on in the worst possible sense can only drain you. In News from Home, Chantal Akerman shows an experience we’ve known, told in a most ethereal fashion – it only becomes more devastating as it sticks with you.
All images via Carlotta Films.
Directed by Chantal Akerman
Written by Chantal Akerman
Produced by Alain Dahan
Featuring Chantal Akerman
Release Date: June 8, 1977
Running Time: 88 minutes