Tuesday, March 29, 2016

'Chantal Akerman Four Films' DVD: Apt Homage to Belgian Documentary Filmmaking Royalty

Product Details
Icarus Films pays great homage to the legendary late documentarian Belgian Chantal Akerman in releasing the aptly named 5 DVD set "Chantal Akerman Four Films" on March 29, 2016. The fifth disc is the highly entertaining and insightful bonus film "Chantal Akerman From Here" that Icarus released (and Unreal TV reviewed) a few months before the 2015 death of the subject.

One element of the work of Akerman that is abundantly clear on watching any of her films is that she documents in the truest sense of the word. Most of each film consists of footage shot from a moving car or otherwise merely showing what is occurring without any narration or background music. In other words, Akerman merely lays out the subject for purely personal interpretation.

The first of the four films is the 1983 documentary "From the East." This cerebral travelogue takes the viewer from summer time Eastern Europe through the fall into an incredibly bleak period in Moscow that seems to be the basis for the phrase dead of winter. As always, Akerman "paints" a candid video portrait of her subject. These images include people sitting in their not-so-cheerful homes, a team of women harvesting what seems to be a potato crop, and the good people of Moscow very unhappily standing in the enormous lines that are so well known to those of us in the West. Cheerier images of that capital include scenes of domestic tranquility.

One depiction of family life in Moscow that includes an exuberant heavy-set blonde toddler provoked the comment "Honey BooBooski." Alas, nothing inspired asserting plans to get moose and squirrel.

The second offering is one of two that Akerman films in the United States in the set. "South" from 1999 examines the blatantly racial-based killing of James Byrd, Jr. in rural Texas. Images that presumably are of the route that the three white killers took while dragging the body of Byrd behind their truck provide a great deal of the impact of the film. The stories of both white and black locals regarding both that incident and the general past and (not greatly improved) then-current racial climate fill out the picture. A description of a lynching tree is one of the more graphic histories.

The fact that things are not much (if any) better in the roughly 15 years since the killing makes this film particularly relevant.

The 2002 film "From the Other Side" is even more relevant in 2016 than "South." This one largely consists of personal accounts of the Mexicans illegally entering California. An early story has a young Mexican man tell the story of the tragic fate of a group that gets lost in the desert after being abandoned by the "coyote" that is leading them into the United States.

The images of the wall between the United States and Mexico and the contrasts regarding the conditions on each side of that barrier add a wonderful perspective to those of us considering the immigration debate in the context of the current presidential election.

Icarus rounds out this collection with "Down There" from 2006. This one is particularly avant garde in that roughly 85-percent of the film is from the point of view of a Tel Aviv apartment that Akerman is renting. The viewer mostly sees the daily lives of the people who live across the street. Brief glimpses of Akerman and a couple of short telephone calls in which she discusses her daily life in Israel break up this voyeuristic film. One of the more memorable scenes shows a heavily dressed Jewish family walking along the beach during what seems to just be a routine outing.

The non-video bonus in the film is the type of booklet that Icarus does so well. This one consists of two essays that discuss the life and work of Akerman and provide awesome cliff notes on the films in the collection.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding the documentaries or Akerman is welcome to email me. You can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.