Chantal Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie , is a melancholy experience. It was filmed in the waning months of the life of the filmmaker’s beloved mother, the main subject of the film. It was also released only a few months before Akerman’s own tragic suicide—she was still touring with the film when she died in October of 2015. As Roland Barthes said of all photographs, this movie’s grammatical tense is the future anterior: “these people will have died.”
The film primarily consists of footage Akerman, then a professor at the City College of New York, shot while visiting her mother Natalia in Brussels. Natalia was a Holocaust survivor, a Polish Jew who escaped to Belgium in 1939, only to be shipped back to Poland—to Auschwitz—in the 40s. Over lunch, with her camera recording from a table behind her, Akerman attempts to get Natalia to tell this story, but the conversation circles around it, jumping from her family’s emigration from Poland in the 1930s to the 1950s.
Not a documentary in any traditional sense of the term, No Home Movie doesn’t—can’t—reckon with the Holocaust in any detail. Instead of probing interviewees and illustrating historical details through narration, it depends on the viewer to make emotional and thematic connections based on snippets of reality. It shares with films like Jeanne Dielman or News From Home  a neutral handling of space and time. Like those films, it is composed of very long shots from which people are often absent or offscreen, or in any case not the explicit focus of the mise-en-scene. Akerman seems to show up in Brussels, set the camera down on a table, and hit record, letting the camera log the ins and outs of her octogenarian mother’s life.
Her mother is also a major figure in News From Home, in which letters Akerman sent back home while living in New York for the first time are read over various long shots of mid-70s New York. No Home Movie might be seen as something of a follow-up on that film: while News From Home is about distance, No Home Movie is interested in the eradication of distance. “Why are you filming me?” Akerman’s mother asks as her daughter points her camera at the computer screen as they Skype. “Because I want to show that there is no distance in the world,” the filmmaker responds.
The two films also have something else in common. Just as in News From Home the seemingly arbitrary shots of New York side-streets become pregnant with young Akerman’s homesickness, the segments of No Home Movie when Akerman is not in Brussels are gradually colored with her concern for her mother. Before we meet Natalia, the film opens with three unrelated shots: a shot of a wind-battered bush overlooking a dusky valley, a scene of a park at midday focused on a man’s bare back on a bench, and a glance at a slightly overgrown backyard, which will turn out to be her mother’s. These images don’t mean much at first, but they all return later in the film, cut and are newly accentuated by our time getting to know Natalia.
Gradually we understand that the images taken between Akerman’s visits, of an Oklahoman landscape speeding by or water slowly undulating are moments of contemplation for her as she, and now we, think about Natalia—her absence from the film bespeaking the larger, inevitable absence that looms over every conversation with her. The approach to time that is distinctive in Akerman’s work—her ethics of slow cinema, let’s call it—can be challenging, but if embraced by the viewer it turns out to be a profound realization of the cinema’s potential for empathy. The ostensibly meaningless and unrelated images become tinted with the Akerman’s own affect, and this not through drama and narrative editing, but with the barest of devices, one that just lets time be.
It is only toward the end of the film that we realize that Natalia is quite ill; one of the last times we see Akerman in the frame, she has to get up and leave the dining table, evidently overwhelmed by the sight of her mother having a weak-sounding coughing fit. Reportedly, the death of her mother was the catalyst for the period of depression that would eventually end Akerman’s own life. Like the film’s shots of arbitrary landscape, this moment ends up being colored with meaning not inherent in the image itself. No Home Movie ends up being a portrait of the unspoken trauma of the Holocaust, and—though Akerman probably didn’t fully intend this—how this trauma has been transferred to subsequent generations.