‘It’s a very contemplative film… and by this I mean slow,’ remarked Chantal Akerman, introducing her César-nominated documentary Là-bas (Over there, 2006) at its US première in New York. ‘Have patience,’ she continued, ‘there are some rewards at the end.’ And she was right: roughly 75 of the 79 minutes of the film’s running time are stationary shots in which not much of anything happens. A digital video camera peeks out of an apartment’s semi-blinded windows, observing neighbours at leisure on their balconies. They smoke, they have tea, they move potted plants around. In the meantime the ebb and flow of ambient street noise (children squealing, scooters buzzing, birds warbling) provide some sonic landmarks, and sporadic bursts of off-camera action and monologue gradually reveal a storyline. Speaking in a melancholy hush, the film’s unseen subject alternates between reflecting on the past and describing feelings of alienation in the present. As these snippets accrue, a portrait begins to emerge: the persona behind the camera is Akerman, trapped in the apartment by her own fears and depressive inertia.
Given the languid pace and relentless atmosphere of angst, Là-bas at first seems painfully esoteric, but for those with patience there is, as promised, a pay-off. Rather than being self-centred or indulgent, Akerman’s malaise is sophisticated, culturally minded and, to an extent, well founded. Over time we learn that she is the daughter of Holocaust survivors and that the apartment is a rental in Tel Aviv. Cloistered inside, owing (in part) to her apprehensions about a recent bombing, she is meditating on the question of whether Israel is the ‘promised land’ or merely a new form of exile. This probing is the substance of the film, and, though Akerman draws few conclusions, it is satisfying to listen to her groping around in the dark of her mind for something solid to say. ‘It’s complicated,’ she declares repeatedly. Her relationship with Israel overwhelms and frustrates her; the simultaneous attraction and repulsion are elegantly captured in the stop-and-go flights of narration.
Unfortunately, there is a troublesome disconnect between narrative and attendant visuals. Since the camera remains fixed while Akerman moves around behind it (talking on the phone, typing and so on), it does not literally represent her point of view; she is not catatonically gazing out at the world she feels cut off from. What eye it does represent remains ambiguous, and the neighbours’ activities therefore seem like voyeuristic tableaux rather than reminders of Akerman’s – or Tel Aviv’s – restiveness. The gulf is most palpable in a few abrupt jump-cuts to views of the beach. After the airlessness of the apartment, these ocean panoramas feel like reprieves, but in the film’s lexicon this seems a somewhat inappropriate side-trip. Akerman wants her audience to despair at the rolling Mediterranean’s vastness, seeing it as another border – one that isolates and confines the inhabitants of Tel Aviv. Her narration, though, does not afford viewers the tools to make such a reversal. Là-Bas hovers between too much and too little information. Its framework makes it something more than an oblique self-portrait, but for a documentary on a Jewish woman’s relationship to the uneasy Israeli capital, it might not be nearly complicated enough.