The work of James Baldwin and William Faulkner long influenced Chantal Akerman’s work and life, and she had long planned to shoot a film about the American south — and finally, an opportunity came just before the new millennium. But in Jasper, Texas, mid-1998, James Byrd, Jr., an African-American man, was dragged behind a vehicle for three miles to his death by three white supremacists. This truly horrific act spurred Akerman to instead focus on the nature of hate and the violence it so often brings forth. Shooting in her characteristically incisive and patient documentary mode, details of the murder and subsequent court proceedings are intercut with pastoral imagery of the Texas countryside, creating a direct link between the absolute terror of racial violence and the seemingly innocuous landscape. “How do the trees and the whole natural environment evoke so intensely death, blood and the weight of history? How does the present call up the past? And how does this past, with a mere gesture or a simple regard, haunt and torment you as you wander along an empty cotton field or a dusty country road?”—Chantal Akerman.
Pour Febe Elisabeth Velasquez, El Salvador (1991, dir. Chantal Akerman, France, 4 mins., digital)
Commissioned by Amnesty International for its TV program Ecrire contre l’oubli (Write Against Oblivion), Akerman’s contribution in the form of a poem is dedicated to Febe Elisabeth Velasquez, an El Salvadorian trade unionist and mother of three, murdered by the US-backed junta. Deneuve emerges from the calm of a Parisian night to deliver a heartfelt plea for remembrance of Febe Elisabeth’s too short life. Sonia Wieder-Atherton’s cello weeps appropriately.