5 Lessons Rogue Indie Director Chantal Akerman Can Teach You About Filmmaking

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Chantal Akerman, the Belgian director of revolutionary films like Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, has passed away.

After coming to New York in 1971 from Israel with just $50 in her pocket, film school dropout Akerman would go on to turn the cinematic world on its head with her visionary, personal brand of filmmaking. Her hallmark long takes, unique aesthetics, and feminist subject matter made her a highly regarded and influential artist, as well as a vital member of the filmmaking community.

To celebrate her contribution to cinema, here are 5 lessons to learn from her illustrious, albeit (often) misunderstood career:

Sometimes it’s your intuition, not your intellect, that makes better films

Akerman was very outspoken about how her process was not one that was planned, formulaic, or based upon intellect. She has explained at great length how her cinematic decisions were made “through the making”, how her edits were made based on her own intuition and internal timing. In fact, Akerman often found it difficult to answer questions regarding her process and approach, because — how can one explain a feeling. She has said that she simply has to trust herself, because she has “nothing else to trust.”

When I cut — I feel, I feel, I feel, and I say, “Here.” For no reason. Just feeling. Just — I feel that’s how long the shot should be. For no rational reason at all — I cannot explain why, but I know that it’s right. Why it’s right, I don’t know.

Bringing the point home, she has mentioned that she likes to “feel” the person who made a film, a key part of the auteur theory. This is because, as she says, “true theory” — a formulaic approach to filmmaking — doesn’t elicit one to “feel anything.” To put it in other words, imagine films were made by a machine through a series of inputs: formulas (intellect/theory) will replicate and repeat a result, but a freehand input (intuition) will result in something unique to the one entering it.

You’re not too young to make a film

When we talk about cinematic wunderkinds Orson Welles usually comes to mind, since he made his magnum opus Citizen Kane at 25. However, Akerman made hers, Jeanne Dielman, when she was only 24, and it was a film that not only defied convention narratively and technically, but it focused on subject matter that was so much more mature and sophisticated than one might expect a young artist to tackle, like anxiety and depression, which she attributes to observing her mother trying to cope with life after surviving Auschwitz.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

The frame is a mirror

If we consider film to be the representation of “time and space”, then you can’t talk about it without talking about Akerman’s contributions to the art form. In the following interview, she describes the experience of the lingering shots in Jeanne Dielman as set apart from the “gaze” — as the audience simply watching an uncomfortably long take — but as something “internal”, something that “goes also through your stomach.” In other words, she didn’t intend her long shots to be like paintings to be looked at necessarily, but to be like mirrors to be looked into — at ourselves and our personal battles. So, if her films were difficult to watch, it wasn’t because of a technical flaw in her filmmaking, but in an emotional rift within ourselves that we’re uncomfortable facing. She forced us to look at ourselves and be vulnerable.

Nobody is born to be a filmmaker; we’re born to be inspired

At 15, Akerman decided that she wanted to be a director after seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou. According to her, the film brought to life the artistic potential of film, because of the film’s likeness to her first love, literature. I remember watching a single shot of Jules et Jim and thinking, “There’s something about that shot that does something to me,” and later on that year I also watched Pierrot le fou and said, “That’s it. I want to make films just like that.” (I said the same thing at 27 about Jeanne Dielman.) Being 22 at the time, I felt a little late to the party, but I realized that it doesn’t matter if inspiration hits you at 15, 22, or 99 — a dream is a dream, and they’re meant to be realized.

Independence in filmmaking is essential

After spending three months studying film at the Institut National Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle et des Techniques de Diffusion in Belgium, Akerman dropped out to make films. She was a huge supporter of filmmakers learning by doing. And as many of us know, making films is probably the best film school education you’ll ever get. And not only was she a film school dropout, she was an independent filmmaker. Akerman details the extreme lengths she went to to fund her career making films outside of the studio system, including stealing money while working at a gay porn cinema to fund her films. (We don’t condone committing felonies to get your films made, by the way.)

The takeaway here is to be independent, not just as an owner of a label of a certain kind of filmmaking, but as an artist and human being. Don’t feel like a piece of paper or a studio job will give you the tools and opportunities you’ll need to become a filmmaker — those come from falling in love with the medium, from working hard to learn all you can about it and putting it into practice. It comes from understanding yourself as an artist — independent from all others. In the end, all you have is you — you decide how much you’re going to learn, work, and express.

Thank you, Chantal Akerman, for your great contribution to the art form that we love and respect so much, and for continuing to inspire us to not just become artists, but to find the artist that exists within us.

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