On Being Chantal Akerman's Student
And filmmaking as finding something in you that is cinema.
I grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts with very open-minded parents. They encouraged me to pursue film and theater. They also spent the better part of my teenage years unhappily married. Fights were frequent, irritated silence regular, and anxiety constant. Watching films and doing theater were an escape from that anxiety. As I got older, I started to see films and plays that externalized anxiety through silence and patient storytelling. After moving to New York City, I became interested in long-take European cinema. I read Chantal Akerman’s name in an article about Police, Adjective and got a copy of Jeanne Dielman from Netflix. There was something in the film’s silence, in the way it dealt with the trouble of everyday living, that reminded me of my own feelings of helplessness and anxiety. This film said things words couldn’t.
The effect was so powerful that as soon as I discovered Akerman was teaching in the film department at City College, I decided I would study there. I had debated film school for years, but now I was convinced it was the right choice. To my good fortune, I was accepted. My first week of class, I emailed Chantal to ask when I could come by and introduce myself. Her reply was short and inconclusive. "Of course Liam, but I do not know when." A few random stops by her empty office got me nowhere. I gave up for the rest of the semester and focused on school.
In January of 2014 I seized the opportunity to attend the premiere screening of Almayer’s Folly at the Museum of the Moving Image. The post-screening reception was hosted by City College, so I knew I’d have a chance to introduce myself. The first time I saw Chantal was during the Q&A session after the film. She sat on stage, looking serious but also childlike and precocious with her legs curled up against her body. It was like watching a nervous child trying to deal with all the attention she was receiving. I instantly liked her authenticity and directness. After the Q&A, I was introduced to Chantal by Antonio Tibaldi, her colleague and my professor. Chantal looked at me, smiled, said hello, and then turned back to Antonio to discuss real estate prices in Harlem. In French. I felt awkward and excluded, but did my best to play it cool. I’m sure I wasn’t.
My chance to get to know her came in the fall when I discovered she'd be running the thesis class for fiction filmmakers. I was elated. This was why I had applied to City College: to get a chance to learn and grow from a filmmaker whose work I admired. The class didn’t go smoothly. Chantal was often absent due to illness, or having to return to Europe for personal or professional commitments. The students grew frustrated. We’d wake up to emails telling us class had been cancelled, or that Chantal would be instructing via Skype from Paris. A few of my classmates sent angry emails. Chantal’s response was to tell them to watch all of Robert Bresson’s films.
Though I found this frustrating, I still had a lot of hope for the class. Besides, it was more than made up for when Chantal was there. The questions she would ask, the ideas she had, the speed at which she could read a script and give useful feedback, were stunning. Chantal had a way of being in the moment and not tolerating bullshit. A skill all filmmakers should cultivate.
I shot my thesis film in late October. With just a few weeks left in class, we screened the first assembly. Chantal said there was "something missing." She didn’t elaborate a great deal. When I pushed her for more feedback, she didn’t have an answer. I was discouraged, but determined to make a good film. Matt, the film’s editor, began transcoding the rest of the footage. He told me it would take a few weeks, as the process itself was time-consuming on his laptop. Two weeks later, at our final class together, Chantal asked if I had finished my film yet. I told her I hadn’t been able to start editing, as the footage was still transcoding. Chantal didn’t take this news well. She became angry. She called me lazy, and told me I wasn’t a serious filmmaker. I told her it was impossible to have edited the film by now. She didn’t find that answer acceptable. She told me she had edited her first film as soon as she could after shooting. Irritated with me, she shook her head and moved onto the next student.
Throughout the class, Chantal continued to talk about me. She told other students not be lazy like I was. At one point, she called me a best boy, referring to the time I missed class to be the best man at my friend’s wedding. I found most of this unreasonable, and tried to remain cool under pressure, but I was upset. I felt that her taunting was unnecessary. I had gone there to study with her, and instead I was being unreasonably criticized and insulted. I was pissed off, and, for a few minutes, wondered why I had decided to go to City College in the first place.
The class ended. As everyone was saying their goodbyes before heading off for the long holiday break, I stood in the corner of the room near the door, looking for someone to talk to. I considered just walking out and going home. Chantal approached me. She hugged me tightly. As she was pulling away, she grabbed my wrist, looked into my eyes, and said, "You must push yourself." Then she let go and walked away.
At that moment, I took her words as a reminder that filmmaking was difficult, and that I wasn’t working as hard as I could have. She believed there was no such thing as waiting when it came to filmmaking. You did it, and if you weren’t doing it, then what were you doing? That was the last time I saw Chantal in person, but I received an email from her on the first of January: "Happy New Year, Liam. Sorry to have been a bit harsh with you." It was a nice message to receive. We communicated once or twice after that. I sent her a draft of my feature film to read. She promised to send notes, but I never received them.
I spent October 6 of last year in pajamas and in front of the computer. I spent it on Twitter, Facebook, IndieWire, and Fandor. I spent it, like so many filmmakers and fans, trying to come to terms with the news of Chantal being gone. I watched a bit of News From Home and some of her early shorts. I took the time to sit in the moment, in the shock before grief. That evening, I tried to describe Chantal to my students at BRIC in downtown Brooklyn. It was at this moment that the shock became grief, and I struggled a bit in front of them. After a lengthy, unclear description of her work, I said, "she didn’t make fiction films. She didn’t make documentaries. She made Chantal films."
That idea, articulated by many before, has resonated with me. It resonated with me through catching the retrospectives, reading the tributes, and thinking about her. Finally, it was all I thought about after seeing No Home Movie, a film that no one else could have made. It has changed what Chantal’s last words meant to me. "You must push yourself."
Now those words aren’t about working harder in a conventional sense. Instead, they're about finding something in you that is cinema. What Chantal wanted from me, from all her students, was to be as honest and true as possible. No waiting, no bullshit. Just making films.
I’m currently at work on my first feature. It isn’t the project I planned, the one I’ve been writing for years, but the one that came out of back-to-back writing sessions. I wrote it without second-guessing or questioning or waiting for inspiration. I’m trying to make it the same way. No waiting. No bullshit. Just making my film.