Originally Akerman wanted to adapt Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories The Manor and The Estate, gleaning her narrative from these, and from letters in the Jewish Daily Forward, where Singer published most of his work. This film is her most overtly Jewish to date.
Having first come to America in the 1970s Akerman discovered the New York underground and Babette Mangolte who would shoot her 1977 New York film News From Home, which overlaid oneiric shots of the city with the letters in French she received from her mother in Europe. Akerman returns in the late 80s with money from French television to make a film as part of a series on writers. This is a film about diaspora, about the new world, and about the ghosts of the old. And it’s in English. For Akerman, who has said she doesn’t feel she belongs anywhere, New York, she says, was the closest she came to feeling at home, yet still there’s a sense of exile and a once remove, both of language, and in the performances in the film.
The memories and stories echo what Ted Hughes described in Singer’s work as ‘the Jewish heart as a way out of the modern impasse’. Yet these stories often tell of people who are ‘lonely as stones,’ with ‘hearts turned to stone’ in what one of the actors calls ‘this savage America’.
Shot in the open air, under the Williamsburg Bridge, the film is a theatrical performance of American immigrants haunted by the past and by Europe, stories not of food, family and philosophy as the title suggests but of bad luck, poverty, love and loss. Akerman has said that while many Jewish traditions have been lost for her, they are regained in everyday life, in love, and this film hints at a pervasive Jewish heart. ‘God doesn’t know us any more,’ says one character, ‘but we don’t know him either’.
While Akerman’s European Jews, like Anna in Les Rendezvous D’Anna, are assimilated, these immigrant Americans are straight out of Singer’s world and the letters in the New York Yiddish paper the Forward. It is a world ‘where there is no mother’ as one character declaims, full of shadows of the ghetto, like the joke where the waiter asks a Jew ‘is anything alright sir?’ instead of ‘is everything alright’- nothing is. The non-naturalistic performances in the film and the uncertain era in which it’s set, reflected in the characters clothes, suggests a film on the borders of theatre, and the theatrical on the brink of a musical (her film Golden Eighties, a musical set in a shopping mall, was made a couple of years before).
Birdsong, traffic noise, and street sounds score the to-camera narration. Akerman has often spoken of her rejection of idolatry, paraphrasing Levinas she says, ‘face to face, you won’t kill’. In Histoires we’re face to face with each character and their stories, and perhaps it is America itself, glimpsed as a skyline from Williamsburg, or from a ship arriving at Ellis Island, that is the symbol of the idolatry of money and commerce.
Akerman’s cast of actors are not cinematic idols, but members of avant-garde theatre groups who play lost Jews telling stories of their immigrant struggles. The humour is bittersweet, yet the film is often sold as a string of Jewish jokes and anecdotes, as an ‘Akerman does Woody Allen’.
But her jokes, if they are jokes remind me of the story of Moishe and Gershon standing on the edge of a mass grave waiting to be shot, when Moishe curses and screams at the soldier who is going to murder them both, Gershon says, “sshhh Moishe, don’t make trouble”. Histoires narrates the impasse of modernity, the unseen sorrows of the old world and the troubled Jewish heart in the new.
Ruth Novaczek is an artist filmmaker from London - More information on her work can be found via the following links:
The New World - DVD