“[Cinema] is the art of allowing ghosts to come back.”
—Jacques Derrida, Ghost Dance
“Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts and by no means just with the ghost of the addressee but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing.”
—Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena
According to Jacques Derrida, the experience of ghosts is “accentuated [and] accelerated by modern technologies like film.” Roland Barthes, who claimed to love photography in opposition to cinema, writes in Camera Lucida that every photograph is “a catastrophe which has already occurred.” To slightly appropriate his words to relate back to Derrida’s point, cinema allows “a catastrophe which has already occurred” to come back to literally haunt us. As Barthes persuasively argues, photography presents death in the future tense, thereby prolonging its arrival. Cinema, on the other hand, as Jean Cocteau tells us, shows “death at work.” In other words, cinema is haunted by our morbid obsession with death, as well as the phantom representations of living subjects that are neither photographic image nor perception. Few films demonstrate and embody this “hauntological” aspect of cinema more beautifully than Chantal Akerman’s News from Home.
In News from Home, Akerman juxtaposes her own voice reading letters from her mother sent during her stay in New York between ’71 and ’73 with a series of meditative long take shots documenting various parts of the city. It is a film haunted by a great many ghosts of various kinds: humans, places, and history. Most noticeably, the ghosts of the pre-gentrification New York of the 70’s, Akerman’s mother Natalia Akerman, and Jewish collective memory all fight to monopolize our attention in the film. Derrida declares in Ghost Dance that cinema is “a battle of phantoms.” In this sense, News from Home can be seen as Akerman’s attempt at exorcising both her personal and historical demons that had been haunting her by letting them loose in this audio-visual medium, which, as Derrida puts it, is best designed to conjure up specters living among us.
Photographed mostly in static long takes and occasionally in lengthy tracking shots, the old New York as it appears in News from Home looks and sounds so radically different from the city as we know today. The city captured via Akerman’s camera is still the melting pot of diverse cultures and races that it is now, yet it lacks the engineered-vitality and glamor that often characterize New York after its economic resurgence under Reagan. Unlike most city symphony films, News from Home remains detached from its subject and hardly ever romanticizes its urban beauty and inhabitants. Rather, the film functions more predominantly as a melancholic spatial-time travel to lost city and time—a phantom city, so to speak.
However, the most jarring aspect about Akerman’s film is not the absence of things that we readily associate with New York in 2017, but the vivid presence of cultural artifacts that are no longer with us. Perhaps, the most powerful example of this appears in the film’s very last shot, which, taken on the Staten Island Ferry receding from the Manhattan Island, slowly reveals the old Downtown skyline. At first, the shot, despite all of its visual splendors, evokes fairly conventional city symphony imagery. But the moment the World Trade Center enters the frame, the same shot suddenly becomes an occasion for mourning and despair. What has initially been the moment of pure cinematic ecstasy becomes in a fraction of a second the ferociously haunting image that triggers our collective memory of the September 11 attacks and the ghosts of those who suffered from them. The film poignantly reminds us that we all co-inhabit this world with flocks of ghosts that loom around above us.
Then there are Akerman’s personal ghosts that fight for their own place in the film. In his letter to Milena Jesenská, Franz Kafka likens epistolary communication to “an intercourse with ghosts.” Not only does one engage in an intercourse with the ghosts of the recipient, but also with one’s own phantom persona “which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing.” In News from Home, therefore, Chantal engages in an intercourse with Natalia’s ghost, using her own voice as the medium. But alas, as Kafka tells us, “written kisses never arrive at their destination.” Chantal’s recitation of Natalia’s letters is constantly buried under the urban noises of New York. Given that the sound in the film is entirely post-synchronized, and willfully out of sync with the accompanying image, this Kafkaesque miscommunication—“how did people ever get the idea they could communicate with one another by letter!”—seems deliberate on Chantal’s part.
In Chantal Akerman, The Pajama Interview, Nicole Brenez asks Akerman to give a brief annotation for each film she made up until 2011; on News from Home, she says “still not free from my mother.” It is well known that Natalia was one of the most profound and essential inspirations for her, and her special relationship with her mother is often the subject of her work, often manifested as home—that is to say, a place or a location—rather than as a mere character. She named this film News from Home, as opposed to “Letters from Mother,” and her final film that documents the last months of Natalia is called No Home Movie. It seems that Natalia was not just someone Chantal had in her life, but something that happened to her—therefore, inescapable like a ghost or a closet monster that continues to haunt us well into our adulthood.
Despite all the genuine love and caring they had for one another, their relationship was also oppressive in some respect. Even after Chantal left Belgium and relocated to New York, she still did not feel “free from [her] mother.” In the actual letters themselves, Natalia goes from being worried—“Please write about your work and your life there.”—to uninhibited passive aggressiveness—“I was surprised not to get a letter this week”—to flat out accusations— “You never answer my questions, and it’s bothering me.” One may wonder: “what is fueling her obsessiveness?” Natalia Akerman, as explored in depth in much of Chantal’s work, was a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. While she did not lose all of her family in Auschwitz, the massacre of her Jewish brothers and sisters left her a permanently unhealing wound, and perhaps made her yearn for borderline-obsessive family bonds. Hence, as it is with he case of the State Island Ferry shot, what these letters deliver is not just Natalia’s ghost, but also the Jewish collective memory of the Holocaust and the ghosts of the victims. For Chantal, Natalia was all of these things: a mother, a home, a woman under the influence, and the remembrance of Auschwitz. “Sometimes, I hope for her death – in the sense that she would have to die in me. Not the woman, of course. Just the mother,” Akerman candidly tells us in the interview with Brenez.
It is worth contemplating on the fact that Chantal decided to read these letters in her voice, as opposed to showing us the letters visually. Shegehiko Hasumi points out that unlike images, “the [human] voice was identified with the body itself” for much of the Western history, and that “reproducing the voice … implied the loss of corporality.” According to Hasumi, therefore, Akerman allows her voice to be her phantom persona that exists outside her body. The film itself, then, becomes her belated epistolary response to Natalia’s unanswered letters. In order to “kill” Natalia’s ghosts that arrived in the form of her letters, Chantal must also present herself in the spectral form. To again borrow from Derrida, Chantal lets her ghost “ventriloquize” Natalia’s words as an entry point for her ghost to the film—that makes News from Home not just a film haunted by ghosts, but a ghost in and of itself.
In 2013, I had the great privilege to attend a Q&A event with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who is one of Akerman’s cinematic apostles. There, he spoke of his desire to use cinema as an interactive ghost medium in which both the film itself and the audience literally “see” one another. Likewise, with News from Home, Chantal Akerman created a radically different type of film—film that takes a phantom form to haunt us, as well as to allow us to project our own personal and socio-political ghosts on the screen. The fact that this 1976 film is hospitable to the ghosts of the September 11 and the mass-scale gentrification tests to its undying relevance. This ghost film is not going to go away any time soon, and will continue to haunt us so long as the medium of cinema continues to exist.