Chantal Akerman was born in Brussels on 6 June 1950 to Holocaust survivors from Poland. Her mother, Natalia (Nelly), was the only member of her family to survive Auschwitz. Akerman studied filmmaking in Brussels but, finding it too didactic, left after a term. She funded her first film, Saute ma ville, by trading diamond shares on the Antwerp stock exchange. It premiered on Belgian TV and Akerman couldn’t afford to buy it back for many years. She spent time in Paris and Jerusalem before moving to New York in 1971, where she worked as a clerk, waitress, model and porn cinema cashier to finance Hôtel Monterey and La Chambre. These early films established her meticulous long-take style and her interest in contemporary urban life, particularly its ambiguous or transient spaces. She returned to Belgium in 1973 and produced Je, tu, il, elle, which the film theorist B. Ruby Rich described as the ‘cinematic Rosetta Stone of female sexuality’.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles premiered at Cannes in 1975 when Akerman was 25, bringing her to international attention. Over more than three hours, the film follows the daily activities of Jeanne Dielman, a widowed mother who cooks, cleans, looks after her son and engages in occasional sex work. Akerman called it ‘a love letter to my mother’. This attention to the private and unrepresented details of women’s lives – as well as the violence lurks under the mundane – would engage Akerman across her filmmaking. She rejected straightforward narrative and conventional storytelling, focusing instead on things unsaid and unseen, but her output was wide-ranging, from adaptations of Proust and Conrad to experimental documentaries to rom-coms.
The generational trauma of the Holocaust was an important preoccupation and led to her final film, No Home Movie (2015), the filmic counterpart to My Mother Laughs, which features long conversations between Akerman and her mother, circling Natalia’s illness and her wartime experiences. News from Home (1977) and Letters Home (1986), both epistolary movies, explore the relationship between mother and daughter through their correspondence. D’Est, her 1993 documentary on the collapse of the Soviet Union, was the first film she reconfigured as a video installation, breaking the singular projection into multiple channels. She went on to exhibit at galleries across the world and at the Venice Biennale and documenta.
In 2011 she joined the faculty of the City College of New York as the first Michael and Irene Ross Visiting Professor of Film and Jewish Studies. Her other books include Une Famille à Bruxelles, which she performed as a monologue, and the play Hall de nuit. Akerman died by suicide on 5 October 2015, a year after Natalia’s death. ‘I don’t feel I belong anywhere,’ she wrote in 1977. ‘On the contrary, I have the feeling that I am only attached to the land under my feet. And even there the ground is often a bit shaky.’