Chantal Akerman - 'Absence and Imagination in Documentary Film: A Discussion with Chantal Akerman', June 2001, European Graduate School, EGS, Saas-Fee
"Akerman: I wouldn't say it's more powerful, exactly. When you say in a book 'there was a beautiful green tree.' You don't see it exactly, you can make it up. If you see a tree on the screen, and then you have a woman speaking about lynching, then it's opening your imagination. It's usually by the addition of another image which is an opening. You can't make images about the camps, for example, because that would be it. A book of that won't close your imagination. You can write a book about the camps, it won't ever be finished, unlike if you made a film. Images in succession can open your imagination, but an image by itself tends to close it off.
I've heard this argument a lot, that the image inspires much less in the way of imagination, but I don't think that's true, especially in some of the things we've seen this week, particularly the scene in 'South' with the rope. Part of the reason that's so moving is because the way you film your movies gives the audience a lot of time to think about other things. As you're traveling down that road, all of us are thinking about images we've seen before, the event itself…
Akerman: That can't be done in writing. You can feel the same thing but it's totally different strategy.
Audience: I think in a way it's sort of the same nebulous, it's just a different way of coming in at it. Instead of providing a couple of words that inspire you to go beyond, you supply a couple of images. I think there's a sense sometimes in criticism that the image is somehow explicated, that you can't imagine a different kind of tree because the tree you see is the tree you get.
Akerman: If I would have shot the scene of the three kids killing the black guy, I think it would have been much less powerful.
Akerman: When you see history since the war from 1938 to 1944, what happened in Cambodia, Korea and Vietnam, it's probably one of the most awful centuries. I think that as an artist it's hard to work on that, even when you don't think you're working on it, it comes through. There are other strategies than filming the facts, in order to make people feel something and not just see something. Of course when they see they also feel but for me it's the wrong strategy to film the Holocaust. I haven't seen 'Schindler's List'. I think Lanzmann's film was the best, I know some people say 'Enough, stop that 'Shoah' business', but I don't think it will ever be enough. Especially since time is passing and there are new generations. We should do more. As a filmmaker it remains one of the main questions.
Audience: I think there's another issue when it comes to filming something that is so devastating and also so encapsulated in time. With the American films of Jews in camps, there's always a question of what was edited it out. I went to a performance and when we walked in the door everything was pitch black, then they showed on an enormous high wall projections of the outtakes from American concentration camp films, so pictures of piles of eyeglasses, hair, shoes, it was horrifying. To me I'd only ever seen the images of people suffering. When I saw the abstract images it was somehow more compelling as an artistic choice. Maybe you only have ten minutes as a news clip to put something out there.
Audience: I think there's something else here that doesn't have to do specifically with images. What you're saying is that by showing something so specific you're closing it off. This is the Holocaust. By suggesting something, a situation or a problem, because there have been many genocides since the Holocaust and there are many people who don't want to acknowledge that. What's important about watching 'South' is the feeling that this can happen again, and that the situation is continuing.
Audience: Because it's a feeling, not a concrete record in time and place. It's not specific to one death, one event. That's what becomes powerful about it. The end shot could be any road, not even just in the United States. There's no fixed face in terms of the incident or the victimizers. You have reference points but the continuity between your films is this allowance, this range, this singular pointing to something which is a kind of violence to the viewer because you don't let the viewer relax or go elsewhere. You remain with a respectfulness that is not normative in documentaries, you don't claim that a story can be arrived upon, that the truth can be revealed, that the end will come.
Audience: So it's strategy of not showing the event, but the spaces around it, the shadows that it casts.
Akerman: This is the case for both Resnais' 'Night and Fog' and for Lanzmann. Whatever doesn't say 'That was it.' Because that's never it, it's always more. If we want to confront what we've been through in the twentieth century then we have to speak about strategies of showing things."