While the USC Shoah Foundation is spending god knows how much on 3-D holograms of oral testimony from Holocaust survivors for future generations, as of 2016, tens of thousands of survivors—in Israel of all places—are living in poverty. The Foundation isn't entirely responsible, that's a failing, too, of the government purported to safeguard survivors, but the disparity marks a gap between how genocide is memorialized and how some live with its trauma. Chantal Akerman's "No Home Movie" is built around a series of interviews with her mother before she died in 2013 and offers a compelling variant on the digitization of survivor testimony primarily by documenting life outside of it.
While her mother, Natalia, is relatively well-off and living in Brussels, the portrait is instructive all the same. Discussion of what happened never takes place, at least directly, but it casts a pall in other ways. The film begins with skeletal branches being ruffled by the wind, followed by Natalia mending a dislocated shoulder. Landscape shots, either stable or en route to an unknown destination, later puncture footage of Natalia, half out of it, either passed out or coughing, ambling around the house. Natalia tells, at one point, of hitting her head when she broke her shoulder, causing lapses in memory, partially affecting her knowledge of Hebrew prayers. Her illness is never specified, but symptoms speak to a larger struggle.
Chantal Akerman's career was, in part, a politics of dislocation—usually Jewish—in which a rootless people failed to stay put: "Tomorrow We Move" built a comedy out of a struggling writer and her mother, a survivor, attempting to sell a house they just moved into while a real estate agent, a survivor himself, struggles to pawn off another house to them in the process but can't because it smells of gas; the titular filmmaker in "Les rendez-vous d'Anna" lives between trains and hotel rooms for festival screenings, including a stop in Germany where the mother of an ex-fiance mentions the effects of the war on her husband; and "La-Bas" chronicled Akerman's ambivalent relationship with Israel during a teaching gig, unable to find refuge in a state built by refugees.
"No Home Movie" resembles "La-Bas," with its use of digital video, but the camera is as restless as it is static, itself ambling around the house, doing final surveys of empty rooms. With less control of lighting, every burst of the sun's energy through the windows amplifies a celestial sense of memoriam. As per the song at the end of "Anna," "A little sunshine can be so bright that it hurts."
Like Akerman's iconic "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels," a tribute of sorts to her mother that punctured images of static domesticity with funereal renditions of Judaic ritual and blithe depictions of sex work, "No Home Movie" isn't an overt essay tract, but one that draws power from the inertia within its interiors. It also quietly unpacks strands of earlier features while remaining enigmatic in way that preserves some of their mystery. One can find the potato peeling sequence from "Jeanne Dielman" in a light-hearted rift over cooking potatoes with or without the peel. A conversation about half-remembered prayers, too, points to the death hanging over "Jeanne Dielman's" Sabbath sequence.
Religion was mostly abandoned by her father after his father's death, pulling her out of Hebrew school and severing a final link to the old world (Akerman has stated elsewhere her mother's father died in the camps). But Akerman saves the one direct reference to her mother's experience for a conversation with her mother's live-in assistant, whose first language isn't French and is attempting an earnest conversation with her boss' daughter. It's unfortunately tone-deaf in that regard, as the assistant asks questions about Akerman's brothers, or lack thereof, while Akerman attempts to relay why Natalia fled Poland for Brussels. Though marred by condescension, it still illuminates a potent gulf in understanding a survivor carries even with those they live with. Akerman never resolved her grief, or a sense of dislocation, ending her life in October 2015, just two months after the premiere of "No Home Movie" at the Locarno Film Festival.
Screens may 6 at 3:45 p.m. and may 7 at 12 p.m. at single carrot theater.