restricted access Slow Encounters: Chantal Akerman's From The Other Side, Queer Form, And The Mexican Migrant
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Slow Encounters:
Chantal Akerman's From The Other Side, Queer Form, And The Mexican Migrant

"Not merely ashamed to be nourished and rich, but ashamed to be seen as someone who has to be aesthetically seduced where it is only a matter of conscience—good or bad—of being a human and nothing more."

—Serge Daney, "The Tracking Shot in Kapo"1

An elderly woman sits to the right of the cinematic frame, wearing a floral blouse and grey skirt. Beside her is a table covered with plastic casing on top of which sit a small television set and a CD/cassette stereo system. She begins by telling the camera her name and age. "I am DELFINA MARURI MIRANDA. Age 78." Off-camera, a woman asks her in broken Spanish, "Can you tell me a little about the story of your family?" In her response, Delfina's story stretches back generations. Her family is not originally from the area, and her great-grandfather was among the first Spanish men that came to this town, Las Minas—one of the "engineers who came to extract the gold." She worked as a teacher in several of the nearby towns, places with names like El Progreso and El Olvido, "very [End Page 423] poor places." She notes the salary she made, the kinds of commerce that existed in Las Minas, and a series of other details that give a glimpse of everyday life in this place. "It's hard, but you get by and you learn," she says. There are prolonged silences as her story wanders aimlessly, until the off-camera voice asks, "Can you tell me a little about your son, RAYMUNDO, and your grandson, who both died?" Delfina's tone remains unchanged as her narrative shifts to the story of her son's death. She says that Raymundo wanted Las Minas to be great, that he had "the itch" to cross the border to the United States to save up money for the town's future: "I want to see my village get bigger, better," he said. Delfina's narrative detours, as she notes how strong winds and earthquakes here require the houses to be built out of concrete rather than cardboard. In the doorway behind her, a young girl enters the frame and interrupts Delfina to ask something. The conversation is inaudible, but the camera remains static throughout the exchange. Then Delfina resumes her story.

The scene is from Chantal Akerman's 2003 documentary film, From the Other Side. Ostensibly, the film is about undocumented immigrants at the U.S./Mexico border. But to limit discussion to what the film is about would overlook the formal stakes of the film, which concerns the way subjects, spaces, walls, and stories are framed. Throughout the film, the camera remains static and distant, as if granting the first-person stories space and time to speak for themselves, but also in order to insist on their ordinariness. Like Akerman's other films, From the Other Side is concerned with cinematic formalism and its capacity to make sense of the social. Another filmmaker might have cut in the middle of the story, attempting to wring emotion from an extreme close-up, a use of montage, or a subjective camera, but Akerman avoids the techniques of cinematic emotionalism. This kind of empathizing, which we might call Levinasian in nature, does not interest the filmmaker.2 [End Page 424]

Akerman instead uses filmic form to render her subjects' experiences of the everyday recognizable. She frames this meeting of the political and the social in Delfina's experience by keeping a respectful distance, allowing the moment to unfold at its own extended pace. She knows that the truth of sorrow weaves itself into the ordinary.

This essay examines Akerman's formal aesthetics and the kind of ethical encounter with difference they enable. Akerman's work challenges our tendency to apprehend the lives lived between borders and nations through images of the immigrant defined exclusively in terms of legality and politically ingrained binaries. These separations foreclose the representational limits that give an account of the immigrant experience by relying on linear narratives that require...