Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie was meant to be a kind of public eulogy for her beloved mother, Natalia (Nelly) Akerman, who died in 2014 at the age of eighty-six, shortly after Chantal had completed shooting forty hours of material with her. But it also ended up becoming, in its own way, a public eulogy for the highly influential Belgian auteur herself, as she died on October 5, 2015, at the age of sixty-five, only a few months after the film screened to widespread acclaim at several festivals (except at Locarno, where it was actually booed). Her death was reportedly a suicide, following a deep depression brought on by the loss of her mother. IFC is presenting a special screening on July 9, introduced by Akerman translator Corina Copp, who will read from Akerman’s final book, My Mother Laughs.
No Home Movie primarily consists of static shots inside Nelly’s Brussels apartment as she goes about her usual business, reading, eating, preparing to go for a walk, and taking naps. Akerman sets down either a handheld camera or a smartphone and lets her mother walk in and out of the frame; Akerman very rarely moves the camera or follows her mother around, instead keeping it near doorways and windows. She’s simply capturing the natural rhythms and pace of an old woman’s life. Occasionally the two sit down together in the kitchen and eat while discussing family history and gossip, Judaism, WWII, and the Nazis. (The elder Akerman was a Holocaust survivor who spent time in Auschwitz.) They also Skype each other as Chantal travels to film festivals and other places. “I want to show there is no distance in the world,” she tells her mother, who Skypes back, “You always have such ideas! Don’t you, sweetheart.” In another exchange, the daughter says, “You think I’m good for nothing!” to which the mother replies, “Not at all! You know all sorts of things others don’t know.”
Later they are joined by Chantal’s sister, Sylviane, as well as Nelly’s home aide. The film features long sections with no dialogue and nobody in the frame; Akerman opens the movie with a four-minute shot of a lone tree with green leaves fluttering in the wind in the foreground, the vast, empty landscape of Israel in the background, where occasionally a barely visible car turns off a far-away road. Akerman returns to Israel several times during the film, sometimes shooting out of a moving car; these sections serve as interludes about the passage of time as well as referencing her family’s Jewish past. At one point, Akerman makes potatoes for her mother that they eat in the kitchen, a direct reference to a scene in Akerman’s feminist classic, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai due Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Knowing about what happened to both mother and daughter postfilming casts a shadow over the documentary, especially when Chantal tells her mother, “I’m in a very, very good mood. . . . Let’s enjoy it; it’s not that common.” As the film nears its conclusion, there is almost total darkness, echoing the end of life. Through it all, Akerman is proud of her mother; reminiscing about kindergarten, she remembers, “And to everybody, I would say, this is my mother.” No Home Movie achieves that very same declaration, now for all the world to see and hear.