RIDM Celebrates Master Director Chantal Akerman

RIDM is back with its usual programming of eclectic and dynamic documentaries from all around the world. Celebrating its 26th edition, RIDM stands by its mission of creating a platform for underrepresented voices, authentic expression and coming together, hence the origin of their French name “rencontres” or meetings. With such a diverse lineup, every individual is able to curate an experience of their own. Whether it's selecting films that speak directly to their own lived experiences or discovering something completely new to them, RIDM allows attendees to thread their own stories through viewership. 

That’s where my story starts. Being a long-time film lover but pretty much a foreigner to the world of documentaries, I stumbled into the festival through an art house alleyway. The festival offered the most beautiful pairing of events in dedication to master director Chantal Akerman. Most famously known for her works, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Je Tu Il Elle and News from Home, Akerman always pushed the limits of conventional film practices and left a legacy of work that is unmistakingly hers. I was delighted to see that RIDM was showing her 1993 film D’Est and also had a special presentation of a solo cello concert performed by none other than Sonia Wieder-Atherton, the late director's wife.

The night that D’Est was showing the headquarters of the RIDM, La Cinémathèque Québécoise, it was booming with many busy bodies walking in many different directions. When I entered I could hardly believe the fifty-plus-person line around the corner of the theater. In fact, the film had sold out and I was one of the lucky few who got in at the last minute, albeit with a front-row seat. 

The film itself was unmistakingly Akerman’s. The documentary consisted of Akerman’s travels to post-Soviet states shortly after the collapse of the Union. The film is without dialogue and mostly consists of long takes of people, landscapes, and infrastructure. It goes without saying that the film is a success, her ability to present ideas and images with such subtlety and without bias, is nothing short of remarkable. According to the RIDM event description, the intent of the film was to capture the disparity and uneasiness of the time. Yet, the point is, in my opinion, to not let a specific lens, combined with one’s learned knowledge, interfere with what is presented on screen. There were some shots in this film that could be interpreted as highly political, such as two senior women hitchhiking and getting denied time again by speeding cars, rural workers climbing up a frozen hill, or finally in the most overtly political shot - an apartment living room with a little boy playing with a toy car, while Gorbachev has an indistinct speech muffled from a television in the background. These shots may be charged with metaphors that can be interpreted as political messages, but I again reinstate the importance of taking the images as they are captured and not creating one’s own dialogue - for one has to remember that this film has no narrative. It is truly fantastic that Akerman captured these people, these moments, these images as they existed, for us to experience not to interpret. 

The following night was the special presentation put on by famed cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton. Pretty unusual for the RIDM to show a concert, the host at the event spoke on how the festival is happy to expand on the concept of what could be considered a documentary. The concert consisted of film stills chosen by Akerman herself simultaneously projected while the cellist performed chosen pieces. As Wieder-Atherton stated “I sense that [the images] are responding, and a mysterious dialogue gradually takes shape…”. The scenes in question were taken from two of Akerman’s films D’Est as well as American Stories: Food, Family and Philosophy. 

The night of the event was quite opposite from the film screening the evening before. Individuals hurried into the Cinéma du Musée to escape the November rain and, although there was indeed still quite a large number of people, this event felt more intimate and private. As Sonia Wieder-Atherton walked towards the stage with her cello in her arm, there was a certain focused and respectful silence that lasted the entirety of the event. 

The performance started with the projection of a simple portrait and as Wieder-Atherton played her first notes, indeed this dialogue the artist insinuated had begun. It was fascinating to experience Chantal Akerman’s images like this, as they are usually quiet, with the majority of the experience happening internally both within the subject and the viewer. Here, we are listening to a genuine, live reaction to the images presented on screen expressed through the playing of the artist’s cello. The performance was passionate, intense but also sometimes fragile. The collaboration left an even more significant impact due to the fact that Sonia Wieder-Atherton was Chantal Akerman’s wife, and with the world is still hurting from the director’s death by suicide in 2015. Seeing the director's static images intertwined with the cellist’s very real and present music felt overwhelmingly beautiful and brimming with love.

The whole performance left the audience softly stunned with an immediate feeling of both coldness and warmth. When the last image of the concert faded to black, a recording of Chantal Akerman singing began. With her voice still being intertwined with Sonia Wieder-Atherton’s playing, everyone present felt the same deep appreciation for such a great artist. 


Lisa Rupnik is the head music director at CJLO and co-host of The Last Stop. She is also an avid record collector, a “no nonsense” film lover and feels that her personality can be best defined by her two favourite bands: YMO and Sparks.