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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.

Screens with

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.

Genres: Documentary

Other Films by Chantal Akerman

Nuit et jour (Night and Day)

Julie and Jack, recently arrived in Paris, are a young couple from the provinces who spend their days making love and their nights apart, while Jack drives a taxi and Julie walks the streets, waiting for him to come home.  Their vague aspirations take a backseat to their constant passion. “Music” resonates throughout—Julie sings wordlessly

From the Other Side

On the Mexico-US border, the twin towns of Agua Prieta, Sonora and Douglas, Arizona—far from the population centers of Juarez/El Paso or Tijuana/San Diego—are home to both hopeful, persistent immigrants and resilient, spiteful permanent residents. As with most of Akerman’s documentary work, she brings a keen, searching eye to this most barren of places, in

Toute une nuit

One summer night in Brussels, sweltering heat stifles the community, which draws people out of their comfort zone and into despair. Akerman explores a series of on-the-brink relationships—break-ups, reconciliations—in the context of this hottest night of the year, where defenses are built, but at the same time, are down. Nearly wordless yet filled with subtle

Almayer’s Folly

With Almayer’s Folly, Akerman tackles the terrible legacy of the European colonial project in Southeast Asia head-on through an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s late-19th-century novel of the same name. Crucially, Akerman makes a handful of changes, transposing Conrad’s Cambodia for Malaysia and Conrad’s 19th Century for the 1950s, the tail end of direct colonial control.

Le Demenagement & Le Jour Où

In a script written by Akerman, a man stands in his new apartment in a state of inertia and dislocation. Le Demenagement records the man delivering an extended soliloquy, surrounded by boxes of his possessions. He cannot bring himself to unpack, as he is preoccupied with feelings of indecision and regret. Akerman circumscribes the man’s