In the summer of 1975, a 25-year-old Belgian filmmaker and her cinematographer shoot footage of Manhattan’s streets and subways for a 90-minute color film. On an intermittent voiceover, the filmmaker reads (in French) from letters her mother has sent her. They are filled with typical parental concern: How is her job? Does she have enough clothes? Is she being careful in the dangerous city? Why doesn’t she write or call more often? The letters are also filled with family news and local gossip: her younger sister has passed an exam, her father is not feeling well, some neighbors are getting divorced. More than once, her mother pleads for more news from her daughter. “You know how I live for your letters,” she writes.
Decades later, at the age of 58, the filmmaker, who has always thought of her mother as her muse, and someone she adored without reservation, realizes that this was only a means of escaping from the immense anger she felt toward this woman, a Polish Jew who had lost her parents in the Holocaust and had herself survived Auschwitz. At the age of 60 the filmmaker explains: “Because she was a woman, I couldn’t exist as a woman. She had grief, so I couldn’t have grief. She was hurt, so I couldn’t scream. As soon as I was born, I was already old, and I never changed, I’m still an old baby. You see what I mean? It’s a problem with second-generation children, after the camps.” At the age of 61, she confesses: “The only subject of my films is my mother.” Three years later, her mother dies, at 86. The year after that the filmmaker dies, at 65, by her own hand.
Watching again her New York film nearly 50 years after it was made, all one can think about is how every person on screen is now either dead or old, and how the city her camera meticulously records, from the desolate streets of Lower Manhattan to the graffiti-filled subways to the Twin Towers that appear in the movie’s final shot taken with a camera placed on the stern of the Staten Island Ferry as it slowly makes its way across the Hudson River, is lost forever and there is nothing you nor anyone else can do about it.
(Chantal Akerman, Babette Mangolte, Natalia Akerman)