In praise of: Chantal Akerman

Not so long ago as some plumbers hacked away at the the tiling around my shower, I watched a very powerful documentary about the (Belgian-born) film director Chantal Akerman; it was almost a hidden experience, trying to make out Akerman's words while the men worked, crashing and bashing at all available surfaces. You can watch the 2015 documentary, dir. by Marianne Lambert, I don't belong anywhere here, or check out the trailer:

Two parts from the documentary particularly affected me and remained with me afterwards. First, when Akerman talks about how in her work she wants us experience the film as if it were happening in 'real time' (or what the US director Gus Van Sant says Akerman calls 'her time'). 'Often when people come out of a good film they say that time flew without them noticing,' she says. 'What I want is to make people feel the passing of time, so I didn't take two hours of their lives, they experience them.' For her the notion of forgetting time, via escapism, is a kind of theft.   

Van Sant says that placing the camera in the same location as the actor gives the scene a kind of hyper-authenticity while also opening it up to chance occurrence, outside the director's control. To illustrate this the documentary includes an extraordinary scene from Akerman's 2011 film, La folie Almayer where you see an actor who sits still, in the centre of the shot (another figure is half-obscured in the darkness). You notice his skin, his bony chest, the half-shadow on his body and then over time and then quite suddenly, within a few seconds, there is a dramatic change in the light that transforms the image, by chance.

'I am cold/The sun is cold/The sea is black.' 

Here is the famous scene of a woman peeling potatoes from the film that launched Akerman's career when she was only 25 and is perhaps her best-known film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976). With its natural sound, unmoving camera angle we watch the woman work and yet it's unavoidable for us not to feel something: her quiet desperation, or oppression, her boredom. 

The film is largely silent. The central character doesn't speak and yet this lack of commentary is extraordinarily powerful. In this respect it reminds me of an Australian film, Samson and Delilah (directed by First Nations film-maker Warwick Thornton, 2009) where the Aboriginal male character says only one word - his name - during the film; we observe him, we watch what happens to him and how he reacts, but he does not speak. (Even though the tone and location of the two films could not be any more different from one another).   

Here in this interview, Akerman speaks about how she wrote the film quickly, in two weeks. Interestingly Akerman refers to the way she wrote the 'gestures' of the film, not the words, or dialogue. These gestures, these chores that made up the central character's daily domestic routine are the essence of the film, giving her some peace, echoing absent Jewish rituals and providing the film with its unmistakable quality that is part menace, part voyeurism (and all about containment) that Akerman likens to a 'Greek tragedy'. 

The other scene from the documentary that so struck me was an extraordinary sequence were Akerman filmed a very long shot from the back of a moving car of a road with no commentary. This road was the location where a Black American man was murdered (tied to the back of a car and dragged to his death). Over time the very substance of the road, the bone-coloured dirt, its texture, becomes abstract and takes on a kind of presence outside of how we would normally perceive it. (It reminded me of moving water, even though the colour was wrong). It's unnerving, but meditative: unsettling and with a certain beauty even if it is difficult to explain why.

All One Night [Toute Une Nuit] (Chantal Akerman, 1982) with English subtitles

From the Vincent Canby New York Times review (thank you David Heslin on YT)

In the course of a long hot night in Brussels, a succession of men and women meet and make love, or don’t meet and are bereft, as the Akerman camera observes them at a discreet distance...

[Toute Une Nuit] is probably as good a choice as any for getting to know this most seductive of avant-garde film makers.

Akerman’s work is mimimalist to the extent that instead of compressing time, she seems to stretch it to the point where one can hear the beginning, middle and end of a single footstep. She composes her films of facts presented without comment or emotion, as if they were inventories. Yet at their best, her films are loaded with the associations that she magically evokes from the cooperative viewer.

To read more about Akerman's art that changed the direction of cinema, see this feature article on Akerman in the New Yorker published after her death from suicide last year and this obituary from the New York Times, or this feature detailing the way other directors have been inspired by her work (also from the Times). 

Merch via Pressure Sounds (top UK dub-legendary reissue label)

Look, what arrived today - it wasn't by chance there was some intelligent design behind it and a payment, of course for the greater good- a chocolate brown/yellow CHANNEL ONE T-SHIRT from the UK label, Pressure Sounds.

Check out their merchandise and fantastic collection of reissues of the great Jamaican masters (Yabby You, The Upsetters, Lee Perry and lots lots more to discover). An offshoot of On-U Sound, the label releases lots of very fine 7 " singles and more, on the obscure side, pure quality. 


BROOKZILL! Interview published in Ambrosia for Heads

BROOKZILL!: a hybrid musical project, part Brazilian street samba/part Brooklyn, New York "old school” – defined by travel and transcendence, mapping out connections to discover that the heartbeat of both musical traditions starts in the same place.

Recorded over a 10 year period in Atlanta, Brazil, New York, Throwback to the Future is imprinted with the personality of its makers: Ladybug Mecca, Digable Planets MC with her effortless cool; the high-energy enthusiasm and eclecticism of “producer extraordinaire” Prince Paul; producer and musician Don Newkirk, with his strong Funk sensibility; and the gravel-voiced Brazilian MC, Rodrigo Brandão.

Listening to BROOKZILL! reminds me of a French verb that has no direct translation in English: dépayser which means “to feel disoriented” (or “have a change of scenery“). Lost in the English translation, though, is an idea embedded in the French that refers to taking your country out of you. As the spirited BROOKZILL! collaboration makes clear, there is definite joy and freedom to be found when there are no distinct borders or markers setting out the path. Most of Throwback To The Future is in Brazilian Portuguese (the first language of Brandão, and also Ladybug Mecca, who was raised by Brazilian musician parents in the U.S) with no translations provided. Sounds come and go, drawing on various traditions, creating surprising intersections, familiar and strange at the same time. Certain tracks are playful, with wry references to Hip-Hop; others are dark, sombre and mysterious.

None of this is meant to suggest Throwback To The Future is a tacky, exploitative version of musico-tourism; quite the reverse. In many respects the BROOKZILL! record is defined by its seamless fit, while also offering up a home-coming for Ladybug Mecca, who pays homage to her Brazilian heritage in a way that seems deeply personal.

During a recent interview with Ambrosia For Heads, Ladybug Mecca explained that the BROOKZILL! project was "about unity – bringing two worlds together that can transcend anything.’ She continued: “Lyrically we touch on subjects such as personal growth, love and transcendence, celebration of loved ones who have passed (but) unity summarizes it best.”

BROOKZILL!’s Throwback To The Future, with its unexpected guest-artist list (which includes Count Bass D, Del The Funky Homosapien, DJs Kid Koala & Mr. Len, Gil Scott-Heron’s long-time collaborator, Brian Jackson, and a number of Brazilian musicians, including some who had previously performed with Pharaoh Sanders) links the U.S. Hip-Hop underground with Brazilian music, while upsetting fixed notions of what a Hip-Hop-inspired project can or should be ...

READ MORE on the Ambrosia for Heads site, where you can also hear the album, Throwback to the future that was released today. 

(Thanks to AFH ed. Jake Paine for trusting me here and giving me this chance). 


Thank you so much to (the team) BROOKZILL - Ladybug Mecca; Prince Paul; Don Newkirk and Rodrigo Brandão for the interview alluded to below that ended up taking place on Monday and is now finished and sent to Ambrosia for Heads (a big moment for me).

What struck me about the BROOKZILL group was their gracious spirit, what the French might call their generosity ... to each other and indeed to the process of being interviewed in itself (in the far from ideal circumstances of an international conf call that kept cutting out, leading to the disappearance of various members of the group at different points).

Merci mille fois.   

Praying to some forgotten Swiss saint

Some better than good news, though I won't share it so as not to hex it, even if this reticence might go against this period's mores (how jealous, how judgmental I was of that other writer who used to announce yet another 'latest success' via weekly emails - until I blocked it - but then went on to publish multiple books, and so it goes). 

This secret is a writerly break, writing for a magazine I respect on musicians that I respect even more. So let us pray to the forgotten patron saint of our craft, Francis de Sales, who according to a very cute piece on the patron saint of writers and journalists, published in The Paris Review in 2014 (by Dan Piepenbring) is best known for his 1609 Introduction to the Devout Life. I especially liked this extract from this forgotten tract: 

1. Place yourself in God’s Presence.
2. Humble yourself, and ask His Aid.
3. Picture to yourself a dark city, reeking with the flames of sulphur and brimstone, inhabited by citizens who cannot get forth.

Picture to yourself a dark city, reeking with the flames of sulphur and brimstone, inhabited by citizens who cannot get forth. 

Let us pray that my phone doesn't self-destruct at some inopportune moment during the interview; that it records okay, that I can distinguish the male voices; that I make sense when asking my questions, and don't speak too quickly and then that it all comes together, so that the editor offers me another chance and it continues.

Another article by the same author centres on a rare recording of Jean Rhys (a writer whose work makes me revert to adolescence, seeking out superlatives). Piepenbring, says that he believes the recording was made in 1979, the year of Rhys's death. 

In the interview, she said: 

You see, there’s very little invention in my books. What came first with most of them was the wish to get rid of this awful sadness that weighed me down. I found when I was a child that if I could put the hurt into words, it would go. It leaves a sort of melancholy behind and then it goes. I think it was Somerset Maugham who said that if you “write out” a thing … it doesn’t trouble you so much. You may be left with a vague melancholy, but at least it’s not misery—I suppose it’s like a Catholic going to confession, or like psychoanalysis.

From the archive: 'Tales from the desert camps'

When in Australia last month thousands of documents were published in The Guardian detailing various human rights abuses and crimes committed against detained asylum seekers in the country's offshore 'camps' at Nauru (a previous Australian protectorate, the tiny island nation, now largely bankrupt after the excessive mining of phosphate - the island's only natural resource that made the country extremely rich for a period of time).

Nauru became self-governing in January 1966. On 31 January 1968, following a two-year constitutional convention, Nauru became the world’s smallest independent republic. It was led by founding president Hammer DeRoburt. In 1967, the people of Nauru purchased the assets of the British Phosphate Commissioners, and in June 1970, control passed to the locally owned Nauru Phosphate Corporation. Money gained from the exploitation of phosphate was put into the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust and gave Nauruans the second highest GDP Per Capita (second only to the United Arab Emirates) and one of the highest standards of living in the Third World.
— Wik

I was thinking of this history which includes Nauru taking Australia to the ICJ in 1989 over what it claimed to be Australia's 'actions during its administration of Nauru' and 'failure to remedy the environmental damage' caused by excessive mining. I was thinking of this today, crouched fully clothed by the swimming-pool (on my way to the beach) here on holiday listening to a man from Ivory Coast tell me about his country's recent history and thinking about how the countries may change, but the relationships remain the same.

GETTING WORK IN Australian detention centres was once surprisingly easy. First, you sent your CV to Australasian Correctional Management’s head office in Sydney and within a couple of days you got a call asking when you could start. No formal interview, just questions about how soon you could leave.

’Alarm bells should have been ringing, says psychologist Lyn Bender about her recruitment in March 2002, ‘but I wasn’t picking it because ACM was a great employer.’ The recruitment officer gave her the phone number of a woman who’d recently returned. ‘Call her,’ he said, ‘if you want to know what it’s like.’ Looking back now, Bender describes the phone call as bizarre. The woman talked endlessly about the uniforms, which sounded hideous, and food that sounded worse. She made no mention of the asylum seekers or ethical issues connected to their internment.

In her dimly lit consultancy rooms lined with impressionist reproductions, Bender’s voice is so quiet sometimes I struggle to hear her words. A former Lifeline manager with experience working at the maximum-security Port Phillip Prison, Bender says her interest in working with refugees was pre-conscious. ‘I had a sense it was a bit like volunteering for overseas service, overseas aid abroad. I knew it wouldn’t be pleasant, but ...’

Few friends or family showed much interest in her new job at Woomera. Perhaps because Bender had always been a bit of a loner and, at that stage, largely estranged from her conservative Jewish family. ‘I always felt like an outsider. When I went to university I joined the Rationalist Society. It wasn’t bagging religion; it was the only way I could express my despair at being dominated by the Holocaust.’

During the Second World War, Bender’s Polish father had no idea what was happening in his homeland. It was only when the survivors from Lowicz, his home town south of Warsaw, came to Australia that he found out that his family had been taken to the forest and shot soon after the invasion. ‘My father then shut himself away for several days; locked himself in his room,’ Bender says. He never recovered.

One of her clients challenged her about the new job, calling it immoral and asked how she could work in such a place. ‘I was going to see what I could do,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t going to support the system.’ Ultimately, though, she didn’t have much time to think. She left Melbourne within the week.

On her arrival at Olympic Downs, Bender was already having second thoughts. Maybe it was something to do with the airport’s oppressive atmosphere, crowded with mine workers. Driving through the desert, Bender kept seeking more information. The officer who met her flight would only say, ‘Oh, you’ll find out. It was like I’d landed in a movie in some kind of redneck town.’
— 'Tales from the desert camps' Griffith Review, 2005

'Tales from the desert camps' is probably still my favourite piece of long-form journalism published to date; taking as it does an early look at the experiences of those working in Australia's immigration detention system that in that era saw the mass detention of all arrivals in remote prison-like centres set up in former military bases in the Australian desert.

My interest then, as now was how these Australians felt about their experience of working in places where children routinely (then as now) cut the word 'freedom' into their bodies; where extreme violence was seen on a daily basis - harsh physical restraints, beatings; during riots, the use of water cannon and tear gas; the repeated use of isolation - and roles within families shifted, as parents progressively became unable to care for or protect those they loved. I was interested to hear how these Australian staff members understood their role within this system and how they managed their feelings of guilt and complicity.

Woomera, water cannon and guards near perimeter fence used in 2001 - I was there during the few days this 'incident' occurred, watching the women and children among the groups of people being pushed by the full force of the water cannon, with all the other protesters (and so-called 'refugee people') who had travelled from Australia's major cities and regional areas.

Woomera, water cannon and guards near perimeter fence used in 2001 - I was there during the few days this 'incident' occurred, watching the women and children among the groups of people being pushed by the full force of the water cannon, with all the other protesters (and so-called 'refugee people') who had travelled from Australia's major cities and regional areas.

From the archive: 'Just neighbours' (Australia and Timor-Leste, 2006)

On the day Timor-Leste became a sovereign nation, the new government signed a deal with Australia. The 2002 Timor Sea Treaty resembled the earlier Indonesia-Australia treaty in place since 1989, with one fundamental difference.

Whereas the earlier arrangement ignored Timorese interests, under the new agreement 90 per cent of the earnings from the Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA) went to Timor-Leste, with the remaining ten per cent going to Australia.

‘It will give East Timor an opportunity to build itself into a truly successful nation,’ Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said at the time. While some international law commentators lauded the deal as a good compromise; others are more circumspect.

Geoffrey McKee, a chemical engineer with more than three decades of experience in the Australian oil and gas industry, is one of them. The treaty will deprive the Timorese of a ‘swathe of important benefits’ especially down-stream infrastructure development, he says. 

The Timor Sea’s real prize was not the joint development area, otherwise known as Timor Gap, but oil and gas fields on its fringes: especially, the Greater Sunrise. In August 2002, a Shell spokesman told the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties that the Greater Sunrise expected to return $30 billion in export revenues, with approximately $8 billion in taxes for the two countries.

McKee says it could earn much more. ‘At that time the expected earnings were based on US$20 a barrel for crude, now it’s around US$50,’ he says. ‘The $3 billion offered to East Timor by Australia is far too low, if it is intended to settle a dispute over a gas field that could yield about $90 billion in export revenues.’

More on the $3 billion payment later, but let’s return to our starting point. One of the mysteries, among many, is why Timor-Leste signed the treaty with Australia three years ago. McKee suggests Timor-Leste was badly served byinexperienced negotiators. The country also needed an income.    

A Commonwealth parliamentary library research note puts it this way: ‘Australia had refused to agree to a new seabed boundary, and new talks on a final agreement might have brought both immediate and future investment in exploration and production to a halt.’
At stake for the Timorese was $8 billion over two decades. ‘With the East Timor government having no other major source of revenue (except foreign aid),’ the note continues, ‘it was in no position to stand on a point of principle.’  Read the article here.

First published in Eureka Street, April 2006.

The Commandant's Daughter (Travelling South)

Am back in Paris now, after a month in Melbourne - and some time in Hobart, as well ...

Street Art, Melbourne

Here is an essay, or perhaps I should call it self-portrait, as it's one of my most personal pieces of writing that I've published to date that reflects on my recent experience in Australia - travelling South - and also the confronting documentary that exposed the abuse of Indigenous Australian children in Northern Territory jails that was broadcast in late July.

This writing speaks to how I felt being back in Australia, and also broader questions about my sense of self as an Australian and as a writer .. Read more here

Watch the Four Corners program, 'Australia's Shame' by Caro Meldrum-Hanna here. 

Detroit Project

Not so long ago the UK newspaper, The Guardian published a story about an American artist ‘bringing a Detroit family home’ (to the Netherlands). Unsurprisingly the sarcastic Brits commenting BTL enjoyed the ambiguous headline. What, they asked, the artist had adopted an entire Detroit family and took them home, as if they were pets for Christmas? 

No, the artist and newspaper subs were forced to reply (and later change the headline): the artist had moved a ‘family home’ from Detroit which was then rebuilt in Rotterdam. 

When thinking about this so-called ‘Detroit project’ I thought about this artwork and how deep the association between Detroit, decay, dispossession (what some call 'ruin porn') is now among outsiders and how all other aspects of the living city - and the people who live there - are overlooked in the process. 

If I'm honest, when I think of Detroit I have zero visions in my mind. And yet the city intrigues me, mainly because such intractable (musical) genius has emerged there, despite or maybe because of what one of the interviewees here described as ‘the struggle’. This idea sustains me.  

If I think about the music that matters to me personally - Alice Coltrane, Stevie Wonder (circa 1972-1980) ...

and when I was younger, Patti Smith, The Stooges - everything of real importance musically from the US somehow seems to come from Detroit. Interestingly, this then continued with hip-hop, in that the track that brought me back to the genre was Black Milk's 'Everyday Was' from his landmark 2014 record If there's a hell below ...

When I first heard that piece of music, it was as if air divided in my chest.  

First up/featured is the gifted MC Nametag Alexander who burst into my consciousness with one of my preferred hip-hop tracks of the past few years, 'Hookless' (feat Mahd, prod. by Nameless).

Then there's an interview with Detroit record label boss, Jay 'Pauly' Lovejoy from BenOfficial Music; a composite interview - a Detroit mix - between Nappz Julian, Maj James and NateOGDetroit and to finish a very cool conversation with Loe Louis from Detroit's Laswunzout - one of the seminal, pioneering hip-hop acts from the city that soldered the so-called Detroit sound.* 

Hope you like it. 

*Been around enough hip-hop journalism/culture to note the competitive edge - it should be noted that none of this is a 'hot picks'/a top-5 (flashing lights, flashing lights) or anything else: my mind doesn't work that way, some of this is friend-related, some of it is related to chance. 

HHF Interview: Changa Onyango (West Baltimore) after police officer acquittal, Freddie Gray trials

‘Apathy is the word I'd use,’ Mr Changa Onyango replied via email when asked how people in West Baltimore responded to the decision that saw Officer Edward Nero cleared of all charges. ‘The people don’t hold out hope for justice in any tangible ways any more. Mainly they were happy to see that the world give them a nod for 15 seconds.’

Twenty-five year old West Baltimore native Freddie Gray died on April 19th after suffering a ‘high-energy injury’ an autopsy report said came from the sudden deceleration of the police van in which he was travelling, shackled and handcuffed, but not restrained by a seat-belt. As a result of his injuries – a severed spine and crushed voice box - Mr Gray fell into a coma and died a week after his arrest.

Read the interview here, where Mr Onyango talks about his community development work and the key issue of housing in West Baltimore (or read it on the Hip Hop Forum digital magazine site).  

And check out this very moving personal response, written by Omi Muhammad - one of the great writers we're supporting at HHF via our New Black Writers Program.  

Today's verdict in the Caesar Goodson case, mentioned in the original article, saw the police officer cleared of all charges (including culpable homicide relating to his driving of the van). It's hard to believe really. 

Rest in Peace, Freddie Gray.