Unfolding Creation: How Chantal Akerman Ignited My First Film
When I was drugged and raped, there was one thing I savored—I had already created and edited my first film, La Flamme. For the second time in my life, I felt saved by a force beyond my control.
How I survived my childhood I understand. How I survived my late teens and early adulthood remains a mystery. If I told you my complete story, you might not believe me. I am one of those people whose life story is a story that shocks most people. Yet, I’m a storyteller. It’s a gift inherited from my bloodline, for which I am also grateful. But back to the story of how I should not be here, of how I should be dead, how I should be another statistic, another meaningless number, a lost Jane Doe. When I was eighteen, my parents had me institutionalized because I had been living in my car, smoking weed. Well, that was the excuse they used, but from my perspective, sending me away was a tool for silence. My parents were angry and terrified of my devotion to revealing the truth regarding the abuse and neglect I’d experienced. Life in the suburbs is not what it seems.
Once institutionalized, I was locked into the system for acting out and for attempting suicide three times. For three years I was bounced around between group homes and institutions because my family had signed me over to the state. During this time, because of my behavior, I was prescribed just about every psychiatric drug available. I was on Prozac before it was passed by the FDA and was subjected to sodium amytal interviews, also a thing of the 80s for young adults out of control. Today I should be ill, aging alone, my hair growing crazier. I should be drowning in quilted confusion, drugged by rainbow cocktails, strapped down with the other sillies who live behind yellow walls. No, sillies who live within yellow walls. But that isn’t me anymore because one day I made the choice to give up those stories told to me, about me, and gave up my modus operandi of running too. That poor woman, the doctor whose knees I clutched after crunching down on my own, took a chance and risked her job by signing that release form. Now and then I think of the doctor and have no idea why she believed in me, but she did.
That day I chose life and hopped into a Chicago taxi to anywhere but there. Beautiful skyscrapers cried for me. Their long torsos breathed life into a young woman who felt dead, isolated, dislocated, and invisible. That day cannot be described any other way because it’s how I remember. Even so, it feels like a dream—how pedestrians in crosswalks looked like family. I remember thinking they looked like family because I did not know them, and they did not know me. I remember that day as the day I was born. Born into another level of being on my own. “If I see you in here again, I’ll never let you go,” the doctor bellowed, as she scratched her name on the paper. That was it. The day that story ended. The day I was free. It would take another twenty-five years for me to fully re-enter my body and mind, to connect all parts—some old, some new. My desire to be a filmmaker derives from a mix of both.
Chantal Akerman was a Paris-based, Belgian-born filmmaker, installation artist, writer, and professor who died by suicide on October 5, 2015 at the age of 65. This blew my mind. How do you make it that far and give up? But that thought was just a knee-jerk reaction. Now I know Chantal Akerman’s suicide got under my skin because I understand her motive a little too well. Her suicide didn’t blow my mind, her suicide cracked it open. Chantal Akerman’s suicide flung open every cabinet, door, and window of my own house, the private house we dwell in, where only a select few are allowed to enter. Once the chimney was swept and the smoke cleared, what I witnessed I did not like. What I witnessed scared me. I did not know Chantal Akerman, but there is something about her story that feels familiar. It pokes at me. Different mothers, different daughters, yes. However, there is a reflection in Chantal’s projections of the push-pull of closeness, distance, and desperation for answers, in which I see myself.
My mother and I did not experience the kind of shared love we witness in Chantal’s last film, No Home Movie, but what I recognize in this film is Chantal’s steadfast determination to uncover the truth. The massive obsession and hope for truth that navigated Chantal’s entire life was portrayed in her work again and again through variations on themes of displacement, isolation, longing, and the loss of a loss. These elements are what resonate most with my own story. I am not an expert on Chantal Akerman, but it is widely known that Chantal was a second-generation Holocaust survivor who struggled all her life with the transmission of Holocaust trauma. I have read that this inherited trauma caused Chantal episodes of deep, painful depression and manic depression. When I made my first experimental short film, La Flamme, I knew less about Chantal Akerman than I do now. The more I learn about her, the more I understand my connection to her, how her story is in a way linked to me as an artist and human being. Don’t get me wrong. I’m aware not all forms of trauma can be compared. But in the wake of trauma, manifestations of pain often mirror each other.
The evening I scrolled the newsfeed and saw Chantal’s face with the phrase, “Suspected Suicide,” I felt quietly devastated. For weeks I could not explain what I was feeling and knew it didn’t make sense. Over the years, I had heard of Chantal Akerman, had watched a few scenes from her films here and there, but to my regret, I had never truly dug into her life and work that seem to be one and the same. At the time, I believed I was obsessed with a woman who committed suicide, a woman I had never met, and who I would never have the pleasure, or displeasure, of meeting, depending on the encounter that would now never happen. Having no idea what I was doing, I picked up my cellphone and began to shoot.
La Flamme was shot on an iPhone and edited with iMovie. I chose these tools to bypass my intimidation of fancy cameras and other editing software. All sound was added during post. I can’t really comment on why I chose certain moving images, but I can say I followed my intuition. I felt as though another part of myself was in charge of those decisions, as I did not have a “shot list.” I just filmed what appealed to me or what made sense. Honestly, when I first began shooting, I wasn’t even fully aware that I was making a short film. It wasn’t until I looked at the footage and began editing that I realized the images created a narrative. However, I must admit that while shooting, Chantal Akerman’s suicide and life were with me. Without even knowing there exists artists and filmmakers who make films and videos using found footage, once I looked at what I had shot, I knew in order for my film to resonate, I would need to “borrow” moving images from Chantal. Using clips of her voice was a last minute decision. I feel strongly that hearing Chantal’s voice in La Flamme is what holds the film together.
Even after La Flamme was complete, I still believed my first film was about my experience of learning about a pioneer filmmaker who committed suicide, but here’s the truth—La Flamme is not about Chantal Akerman, although Chantal was my muse. When I watch La Flamme now, I witness the result of a woman in the taxi who escaped a horrible existence. I witness a human being who chose to create a new self from a mix of old and new parts. I see the combination of these parts that have become a whole person, the whole woman I am today. Still messy at times, not as graceful as I aspire to be, but somewhere in the rubble of past traumatic experience, I found me.
At a pub in February 2016, I was drugged. So drugged that without knowing, I followed him home, where, because I was out of my body and mind, he had his way with me. At some point I came to, though not fully conscious, grabbed my clothes, and somehow found my way home. To this day I could not tell you where he lives because I have no recollection of going there or leaving. I only know I did. What I did inherit from being raped are flashes of running down the stairs from his upper-level apartment and seeing my deep purple car across the street. I have flashes of his naked body on my naked body. And I remember wearing the same clothes that weekend, a whole weekend of working brunch, having not showered because the idea of seeing my body disgusted me. Pine needles stuck to my tube socks when I ran through the bushes, which I did not notice until I undressed for the first time, three days later.
Just like those skyscrapers breathed life into my younger self, La Flamme would not give up on me. This little film began as one thing and transformed into something else. In May 2016, I watched La Flamme for the first time since before being raped. Intuitively, I knew I had made something kind of beautiful that seemed to touch viewers, but after the rape, La Flamme kind of turned into a self-motivational tool. It became my therapy. It sharpened my focus and gave me something else to think and talk about. Had I not reopened the film, I am certain I would have died by suicide just like Chantal Akerman. By revisiting and resurrecting La Flamme, I found half of myself patiently waiting for my other half to resurface. My relationship with La Flamme and Chantal, imagined or not, re-taught me what it means to utilize courage, how to be tenacious, and it reminds me how “you have to believe in your instinct,” as Chantal Akerman once said.
Beginning in June 2016, I submitted La Flamme to at least two-hundred film festivals, perhaps more. I have to laugh, now, that I spent more money in festival submission fees than on the actual film. But I was fueled by a determination to have La Flamme seen. Besides an art gallery in Newark, NJ, neither La Flamme nor my second experimental short, The Music Taken with Her, have been accepted to a U.S. film festival. Every screening has taken place abroad. I’m very lucky and grateful that the first festival screening for La Flamme happened at the 2016 London International Short Film Festival. With the generous support of my friends, I was able to attend. Attending this festival was a double-whammy experience because not only was I in London to attend my first festival where my first film was screening, the experience also felt like a kind of homecoming because in the early 90s, I had lived up north in Derbyshire. Much to my surprise, La Flamme won in its category, which was a huge shock because I felt impressed by the other films presented. Since its premiere in London, La Flamme went on to screen in France, India, Italy, Hungary, and Spain. The Music Taken with Her recently screened at the 2017 Russia Film Festival and at the 2017 London International Short Film Festival. I am over the moon that LISFF accepted my work for the second year in a row and feel incredibly blessed the film screened in Moscow. The experience of filmmaking, if I can call it that, is teaching me what it means to utilize and trust the support of friends, filmmakers, festivals, and organizations such as agnès films.
For me, I don’t feel like a director in the traditional sense. That’s why when my name appears in the credits of my films, I use “Created by” because I really feel, at least for me, that filmmaking is a path to creation, something realized along the way. Going into a project, I have ideas of shots lined up in my head, and of course I will have been obsessing about something or someone, but honestly, it’s not until I begin editing that I realize the crux of what I need to show. Even then, as with my poetry, years can go by and I still find myself learning about the work I do, about what it is I’m compelled to express. I still find little things in La Flamme that make me go, “Oh!” Or, I find it exhilarating when a friend watches it and points out something to me I had not noticed.
As a new video artist, I hope what comes across in my films is the process of unfolding. Perhaps this element of time is why in La Flamme I focused and repeated the anxiety of pacing and the changing colors of leaves. There was a kind of pre-unfolding in my 30s, but because I was ready, the real-time unfolding happens in La Flamme. Subconsciously, I chose Chantal Akerman’s story as an opening for my own. True, had Chantal not committed suicide, I would not be telling this version because the story would not be the same. Had I not been drugged and raped, I might not have needed this story. I thank the universe La Flamme was created before I was raped. Sometimes I wonder if my obsession with Chantal Akerman’s death, which led me to La Flamme, was a kind of premonition, a foreshadowing, as if the spirit world pushed, “You’re going to need this film in a few months, make it now so it can be there for you.”
After the rape, while completely lost in isolation and humiliation, desperately trying to put myself back together, I reconnected with Chantal Akerman and La Flamme, but in a different way. For the first time, I was able to see myself in the film and could understand more clearly the magnetic pull I originally felt, and still feel, to Chantal Akerman. It’s as if being raped after I made the film challenged my being. Hardcore. Like a friend using tough love, La Flamme forced me to step out into the world as myself, having something I created that I wanted to share, I needed to share. Being raped may have broken me for a time, may have changed me forever, but I was not damaged beyond repair. In some otherworldly, unexplainable way, my first film swung back around when I needed an anchor the most. Its return completed the circle. It is this belief I hold that tells me La Flamme isn’t only a love song to Chantal. La Flamme is a love song to all of me.
If you would like to watch La Flamme, here it is: