Queer Women History Forgot: Chantal Akerman

The feminist lesbian filmmaker was behind the first-ever Sapphic sex scene in cinema.

For Women’s History Month, GO is celebrating LGBTQ women we wish we could have learned about in high school history class.

Born to Polish Holocaust survivors in Brussels, Chantal Akerman attended film school in Belgium at the age of 18. She dropped out in her first term, though, to make her first film: “Saute ma ville,” which premiered at the Oberhausen short film festival in 1971. She then moved to New York and made her first feature, “Hotel Monterey,” followed by several other films, including “Je Tu Il Elle,” which she also starred in and featured the first-ever explicitly lesbian sex scene. It was well-reviewed and celebrated posthumously with a showing at last year’s 30th anniversary of the Teddy Awards at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival.

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“I wrote a story that I liked,” she told the New York Times. ”Everybody thought it was political. But it was a normal love story. It’s not a feminist movie. I’m not saying it’s a gay movie. If I did, then you go to it with preconceived notions.”

Throughout the rest of her career, Akerman made more than 30 other features, documentaries and shorts, most of which had strong feminist themes, despite Akerman’s rejection of labels that were also part of her personal identity, like feminist, lesbian or Jewish. Her work often touched on family (such as her final film “No Home Movie,” which focused on her relationship with her mother), though she also adapted famous works from Joseph Conrad (“Almayer’s Folly”) and Proust (“The Captive”). Her work was celebrated in both cinematic and art venues as part of special exhibitions and celebrations,  and her most famous film, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” was named the 19th-greatest film of the 20th century by the Village Voice.

Akerman took her own life in October 2015 at the age of 65. Her sister said she’d been hospitalized for depression after the death of their mother, and had also suffered mental breakdowns. She passed away just before a documentary, “I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman,” was to premiere at the Locarno Film Festival. She will always be remembered as a prolific and inspired filmmaker who wasn’t defined by anything other than her work, and while she didn’t embrace labels, she embodied them unapologetically and allowed them to come through organically in her films.

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