News from Home

The film starts off seeming like a portrait of a city in these rigorously composed long shots of New York streets. It’s only when the voiceover emerges ever so slowly that we realize that Akerman is actually reading out a series of letters sent by her mom from Brussels while Akerman was living and working in New York. It’s such a neat formal device to capture her experience in New York - the visuals and the diegetic sounds have us experiencing this city she is perhaps seeing for the very first time while simultaneously the letters proffer glimpses of the life and home she has left behind.
It’s pretty genius how Akerman manipulates these three formal devices - the long takes of the city often with minimal to no camera movement, the diegetic sounds and the voice-over to give us what I think is a very particular view of this time in her life. So to start with the images of the city, this is no tourist ride through the well-known landmarks of the city. Instead, the feeling I got was more of a person walking around the city looking at things at eye-level or standing in a corner for an extended period of time watching passers-by. It’s a great portrait of a living breathing city untarnished by specific pop culture representations that one has come to expect while watching a film set in NYC. Another thing I noticed was how the stationary camera means Akerman doesn’t choose to pursue any interesting stories of people that might enter the frame. Which makes the film feel verite or whatever. And yet, at the same time, it’s not just purely observational or “realistic”. Akerman will often switch from day to night abruptly.

Likewise with the sound mix which again Akerman seems to be manipulating at least to a degree. I don’t recall a single instance where we actually hear any passers-by talking and yet, they seem to be passing by the camera. On the other hand, the traffic sounds and such are loud and pronounced and sometimes even drown out the voice-over narration.

And then there are the letters themselves. On the surface they are pretty prosaic - a mom worried about her daughter’s well-being in a foreign country, updating her on things that are happening on the home-front, developments in the family and so on, offers of financial aid. And yet, there are hints of emotional manipulation (this may just be me projecting) perhaps. The repeated requests for responses not just to the mom but also exhorting her to write to other relatives and friends, the repeated references to either one parent or the other being unwell in some way. At the very least, one gets the impression that the mother would like a reciprocal, “News from New York” and while there are references to Akerman replying to these letters on occasion, for the most part, Akerman seems unable (or unwilling) to reduce her experience into mere words or stories.