Slipping into 1980, Chantal Akerman widened and polished her scope of interests with Dis-moi (aka, Aujour’dui dis-moi). While Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978) hauntingly alluded to the Holocaust, this short performative documentary engages with its harsh remnants. Commissioned for French television, focusing on grandmothers, the 30-year-old Belgian filmmaker decided to interview numerous survivors. Including her mother, whose hushed voice is spread across the film’s narrative, the four testimonials tend to dwell on their family lives before the Ashkenazi Jews’ insufferable avalanche of systematic murders.
The performative qualities can be discerned by the director’s own presence. By constructing sequences with reverse angle shots, presenting her and the speakers, there lies a clear wish for personalisation. After the first two visits, a camera peers up onto the elderly women’s balconies. Cutting down to ground level, outside the apartments, a solemn Akerman stares up with fascination and respect for her subjects. Being the daughter of a lady sent to Auschwitz as a child, its ceremonial nature is unsurprising. As an unspoken fifth member of this story, she comes from a disparate generation of European children who will never truly understand the Nazis Final Solution, but lug its solidly traumatic load.
An obvious comparison to Dis-moi is Claude Lanzmann’s towering 1985 investigative piece, Shoah. Brimming with the faces and voices of witnesses, survivors and perpetrators, archival footage is discarded, rendered an inadequate form of expression. Akerman’s obscure study is a concise precedent of this apparently singular approach, relying on us to imagine the unimaginable. Curiously, though mass trauma looms over the film’s entirety, it’s a thinly strung topic of discussion. The hospitable interviewees offer cake, tea, and vodka and speak of a period before genocide. Two accounts are brief, ending with “I have nothing else to say” With slim knowledge of their misfortune, it’s an odd (yet understandable) ending to their verbal memoirs, leaving us no less informed than before. Effusing a radiant humility, Chantal listens without forcibly raking in historical details of morbid intrigue.
Unlike this terse pair, the third and final elderly lady asserts to having 10 days worth of material. I wouldn’t doubt her one bit. One tale of young love, set in the early 1900s, involves an infatuated man proposing to her grandmother, only to be rejected. A true romantic, he exclaims, (though I can’t remember word-for-word) “if I can’t be with you I will die tomorrow” The very next day, he is killed. From here, fate becomes a cruel force, whose heft is increased when the woman recalls her grandmother claiming the Jewish people must suffer.
All of this irremovable dread never tramples over the hearty humour. Entranced by these experiences, food is not a priority for the filmmaker. It clearly bugs this particular woman, pushing her timid guest to eat at every pause. Hilariously, she even threatens to discontinue speaking. In a final shot of this rather merry survivor’s coarsely wrinkled face, nothing is said. She just stares into an off screen space. Almost still, like a rough-hewn sculpture of a foggy era, her later years into the 1940s are left to ponder.
Chantal Akerman evolves with each screening. Here, domestic oppression is put aside, expanding on her research into migration and displacement. If anything operates as a source of oppression, it would be the past bleeding into present consciousness. Its visual absence asks, what else can be said or shown of our ancestors’ horrid times? What took place needs no elaborate divulgence. Just be aware of its unfading stain.