‘I was overcome by an emotion I can’t quite define — something to do with happiness,” Chantal Akerman says during her sole, fleeting onscreen appearance in the sublime One Day Pina Asked . . ., the 1983 documentary she made on Pina Bausch and her dancers. The director is attempting to elucidate the feelings stirred by watching one of the works by the mighty, if blade-thin, choreographer; what Akerman can’t express in words, she makes piercingly specific with her images.
Bausch revolutionized the art with her Tanztheater (“dance theater”), her choreography emphasizing big emotions, Sisyphean gestures, and the pleasingly absurd. Akerman and her crew — including her frequent cinematographer Babette Mangolte, who shot Judson Dance Theater cofounder Yvonne Rainer’s first feature, Lives of Performers (1972) — followed Bausch and her 26-member troupe for five weeks in cities throughout the continent. The hour-long film, which originally aired on European television, captures the soaring grace of bodies in motion onstage but also behind it, with dressing rooms filled with lithe, sinewy men and women slicking back hair, adjusting ties, reapplying makeup.
Unlike Wim Wenders’s 3D Pina from 2011, which also includes excerpts from live stagings of Bausch’s pieces, One Day is not freighted with the burden of commemoration. (Bausch died right before shooting on Pina was to begin in 2009; Wenders, a fan and friend of the choreographer’s since 1985, immediately shut down the production, which seemed unimaginable without her. But her ensemble members, some of whom appear in both Akerman’s and Wenders’s projects, convinced him to proceed.) Akerman’s approach to the material is more idiosyncratic than Wenders’s: She films one dancer backstage, a tall, blond Teuton who explains that during the rehearsal for 1982’s Carnations, Bausch asked her performers what they were proud of; he shows off for the filmmaker the ASL he learned in the U.S. by signing “The Man I Love” to a scratchy recording. The moment seems a touching non sequitur, a brief interlude between the intense segments of 1980 and Kontakthof. But later we see him sign the Gershwin standard again, to the same beat-up 78, this time in costume onstage — a solemn moment that uncannily destabilizes our earlier delight in what had appeared as a loose, one-off performance.
Self-conscious importance, unfortunately, marks Chantal Akerman, From Here, an hour-long interview with the auteur from 2010 that plays free in the Film Society amphitheater once a day in conjunction with its run of One Day. Directors Gustavo Beck and Leonardo Luiz Ferreira pay spurious tribute to their subject — seated at a table, a too-big cushion later added as a booster seat — by filming her in one long, unbroken shot from an open door, a silly attempt to replicate the director’s own signature style. Ferreira, heard offscreen, asks a series of not particularly interesting questions (“What do you think about contemporary cinema?”), pausing dramatically between each. Akerman, understandably, appears eager for the inquiry to be over, though her answers are always candid, at times a little heartbreaking. “With my films, you feel every second passing through your body,” says the woman whose 1975 masterwork, Jeanne Dielman, demonstrated the epic power of quotidian actions. “In a way, you are facing yourself.”