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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Over There : documenting contemplation

Là-bas / Over There (2006/Chantal Akerman/Belgium/France) ***

The film starts and ends inside someone's empty living room, respecting the rules of dramatic unity (one space, one time, one action). A precautionary look at what's happening outside. The shots are always static and patiently pursued in long takes. If the framing is artisticaly composed, it lets however the audience's gaze wander around and select our own acumen. Little action animates this quiet scrutiny of the neighborhood, from various angles, through the straw-screens. A textured curtain of proximity and disconnection. Lacking any hint of a narrative subject, these silent images denounce the passivity and voyeurism of a cinema viewer, which strangely echos the filmmaker's own state of mind in Israel.

After a while, mundane noises announce a presence we'll never see. As we imagine her making coffee in the kitchen, eating fruits, walking around, typing on her laptop, Akerman invites us to share a slice of her dailylife and witness her self-imposed seclusion. Thus the camera isn't Akerman's own eye, but a supervisor planted next to her. It rolls, nonchalant, as she stays off-screen doing other things.
Her voiceover commentary will come later to incorporate her developping ideas. She talks about triviality (food, traveling, mood, work, family memories) in a diary fashion. It could be an essay film in-progress, observing itself being made. From the notes, to denial, to idle shooting, to making of, to meta-documentary, to film. All in one.
A phonecall in French, with her mother or a friend, explicits her situation : she's fine, a little tired, her stomach was sick, she has work to do. Another phonecall in Hebrew and English, with a local friend, says she'd rather stay home. Three interlaced idioms remind us the communication barrier in a foreign land. From this remote sanctuary, the phone links to the world, literaly, all the way to Belgium, and right outside in the city. It's her only human contact. Our only context to the film. And an opportunity for a diegetic monolog.

Shortage of food imposes a leap to the shops. Not the israeli salads! they made her sick... This upset stomach could be a psychosomatic symptom due to her resistance to go out, or a subconscious incompatibility. Everything seems to approve her self-imprisonment. Her vocal introspection shares with us the irony of these coincidences.

All the while the digital camera peeks views of the buildings across the narrow street of her only landscape, over-framed by the curtains. Her neighbors become the involuntary protagonists. Through recurring shots of extensive length, we get to familiarize with some of them appearing now and then at the windows. There is an old retired couple up there, watering the plants every day. Noises of cars driving in and out. An old lady smoking on a tiny balcony. Children shouting nearby. A group of people in the street.
We can only imagine the words of their conversation. We listen what we can't see off-screen, we see what we can't hear. Our senses are dissociated. The mind will reconstitute the puzzle of a larger reality. Our voyeurism projects a judgement on them as we profile their supposed personality. These shots unroll silently, patiently, waiting for something to show up, or not.

And the montage cuts from this window to that balcony, like if skipping channel on a TV. They are like small silent films, from a surveillance camera. The almost-real-time contemplation translates the apprehension of dailylife rhythm in this quarter. We are there. We live there.
The sun drags the shadows across the facade, from underexposed to overexposed. The intensity of daylight evolves and creates a new environment, more or less oppressive. Texture, color, depth constantly vary.
The images fabricate a de-facto narration, in the absence of a stated plot, because they contain their own fragmented stories, those of real-life people, an intimate microcosm. The scarcity of sightings makes the observation riveting and the wait rewarding. At the antipode of Rear Window, Akerman recreates a dramatic tension out of nothing (what's already there) with her frame.
Them on one side, and her on the other end, and us. The narrow field of the tele-lens, the minimalism of details, transcend the archetypal features of a neighborhood, so we can relate to this confrontation to the "Other" painted in universal tableaux.

Là-basOn her exceptional visit to the beach, we can at last breath the open air. Same contemplative static shots observing from the distance the stroll in the sand of an orthodox family and tourists alike. Both the people and the filmmaker face the horizon. Over there. One always dreams of a hopeful elsewhere. The titular "Over There" that meant Israel from a european perspective, here, in turn, names the world beyond the sea : Europe, home, USA.
Just when she returns from the shop, she learns about a bomb attack on the beach, around the corner. Akerman is under shock in her appartment, and doesn't stigmatize the incident in spectacular pictures like the Israeli news. This bomb hides in words to us.
The phone rings again and she lies about her fear to appease her friends. The shot angles are the same routine but the atmosphere is more severe and the tone more serious. She notes her aunt Ruth in Bruxelles and her friend's mother in Tel Aviv both commited suicide around the same time. Why suicide in Israel just like everywhere else? Isn't it the promised Land?

The film is making itself in the camera magazine, overcoming her initial reticence. The intuition of the filmmaker succeeds where her intellect backpedalled.
* * *

In February 2005, Chantal Akerman is asked to make a documentary on Israel. Taking position, shaping a vision is complicated. She's afraid to picture this difficult nation too lightly, to give an uneducated judgment of the conflict, to oversimplify politics at work. Not belonging to Israel is also a worry. She doesn't feel at home and she can't identify her peers either. These are the dilemmas Akerman contemplates hampered by the inhibition of her neurotic denial. Although reluctant to confront a caricatural banality of long-lived clichés, she installs a camera in her rented appartment nonetheless and lets it capture life through the windows.

The reflexion about the conception thus becomes part of the documentary itself, like a very personal meta-film, which turns out to be a creative justification on the impossibility to produce satisfying images. The limitations of cinema, as a regard, in descriptive explanations. What Akerman can't bring herself to say, the strict formality of her montage reveals it. This contemplative aesthetic takes a long pause to ponder, through the physicality of wait and silences (in place of intellectualized polemics), over the state of being in Israel, the resentment of exil, the uprooting of dispora. The ambivalent Jewish fate.

The cinematic space and the auteur's scope, in a symbiotic analogy, are both divided in four constructs layered in depth: Inside, Frontier, Outside, Away.

Her spontaneous, neurotic seclusion, takes a political dimension in the context of her own double exil. She's first exiled from motherland, Israel, because her family lives in Europe, and she's exiled again, as a foreigner, once in Tel Aviv because she can't pretend to be Israeli. A feeling of being elsewhere, always out of place.

She's a child of the second generation. Her mother bears the wounds of the death camps in her flesh, Chantal does in her subconscious. She says if she had been raised in Israel she would have ran around with the other kids in the street, but in Bruxelles, going out was forbidden and she watched the kids from her window. In this film, again, she assumes the childhood conditioning and watches from behind closed windows.

INSIDE (Exil) : Bunker-appartment, safe hideout, passive observation, centrality, immobility. She is in Tel Aviv, but the closed doors make her appartment an alien territory, away from Israel, which only shows out of the windows. A microcosm in truncated details, out of context. All screens pulled down on the windows create a camera obscura, the reality from outside filters in through the gaps. We're in Plato's myth of the cave : the silhouettes at the windows are the only reality she knows of Israel.

FRONTIER (Curtain) : Initial distanciation from her environment, ambiguity conceal/reveal, overframing. The large bay-window filling the screen, replaces the cinema screen, stands for a TV screen to display movies or the News. Relating her experience to the theatre audience.

OUTSIDE (Street) : Homeland, heartland, motherland, Tel Aviv, Israel. The first layer is the invisible street down below that emits a muffled ambient noise (sound without visual). The second layer across the void, is the facade of the building, replicating/mirroring her "inside", only as seen from outside, behind their walls and curtains (partial visual without sound). Each window is a TV screen to contemplate, with its own "soap opera" with recurrant characters.

AWAY (The world) : Ideal hope. Immense, global, invisible macrocosm, out of reach, impossible to grasp. Represented by 3 elements. The planes in the sky, going to another exil. The sea, open on all sides, the polar opposite of her cealed bunker. The phone line connecting to friendly voices, breaking the exil, folding space, canceling the distances.

* * *

Sous le ciel lumineux de son pays natal (2001/Franssou Prenant/France)
A companion film to Akerman's documentary would be a similar work by Franssou Prenant who tells her return to Beyrout in Lebbanon (on the other side of the Israeli border). She interviews her friends, off-screen, who stayed there and recall her memories from before the war, her impressions of the changes, against a handheld reportage through the streets.

Post cross-posted from Screenville by HarryTuttle

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