04/03/2014 12:09 GMT | Updated 04/05/2014 06:59 BST

Dis-moi - a Break-through Work by Chantal Akerman

It is doubtful that even the most dedicated cinephile will know Dis-moi, or Aujour'dui dis-moi as it is also known. It was commissioned for French TV, and has been shown only once or twice in the deepest recesses of thorough retrospectives. It has never before been subtitled for an English speaking audience (as it will be for the screening on March 13th).

I have not found any writing at all on this film, which is hardly surprising since it is so invisible. In fact, it is invisible even by the standards of a film-maker whose great work has been woefully underrepresented even on cinémathèque screens. Nor is all her work easily available on DVD. This is odd given that she is a film-maker of the top rank, so often picked out by great film-makers for their top-ten-films-of-all-time lists.

And yet, seeing her work in chronological order in the A Nos Amours retrospective, as a part of an exhaustive retrospective it is immediately apparent that there is something truly exceptional happening in this slight 46 minute film made for television. It is nothing less than a reimagining of history, and the creation of a new form that Akerman has followed up on ever since.

How is this? Dis-moi is a set of interviews conducted by Akerman herself. We see her travel from door to door, knocking and being asked in by a series of elderly, respectable-looking ladies. She is expected. And then, over coffee and cakes, these elderly ladies, all Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, share their dread tales, amid diegeses about food and love and family live. Of course the people that figure in these narratives are more often than not dead, gassed by the Nazis.

Chantal Akerman is present in the film, as, on the one hand, emissary of her mother, whom some of these women seem to know well, and have known for some time, and, on the other, as proxy for us, the viewers of the film. Chantal, a daughter, is polite and attentive; she is a guest who clearly admires, respects, and honours these women. What they have to say is important, it is the stuff of life: they are sharing and rehearsing the folklore of the tribe, they are naming their ancestors, they are showing Chantal who she is and what she is. The terrible, ever-present fact of the matter is the terminal disruption, the Final Solution of the Nazis, the attempted murder of an entire race.

But this is to lapse back into a picture of the Shoah that is not quite what this film offers. The image of the Holocaust as an end of paternity - the eradication of sons - is potent because it makes clear that genocide is about putting an end to a genetic strain. It offers the image only of the end of the line. But genocide is something else too, it is about the disruption of what it is that a mother gives her child, which is the living truth, the words, the stories and a manual for life that embodies morals, precepts and principles. Everything that defines a culture. What we have here is a redefinition of the meaning of genocide seen in terms of what lies behind a person, what is inherent in lost lives lived and what has been lived through by the survivors.

I would like to make mention of the great composer Morton Feldman's love of Asiatic tribal rugs. He loved the uneven regularities, the woman-made (for they all are) disruption of mathematical certainty. One edge of a rug may figure eighteen patterns while the other only seventeen. The thread tensions vary and the rhythm's are uneven and yet beautiful. The colour repeats seem to be prone to whim, and yet taken in as a whole make perfect sense. This is how the narratives of these women come across to me in Di-moi. Chantal Akerman, listening like only a psychoanalyst can listen, not compelled at all times to interrupt, to structure, to order, to make neat, permits (more, she empowers) these women to speak.

And speak they do, movingly, affectingly, wonderfully. We learn as much in these few minutes as we should about the Shoah: yes, it was a terrible crime against humanity, that needs to be remembered and memorialised, but we also learn something elemental about life in a shtetl in Poland before the war (about bakery, tailoring, courtship, love), and so therefore the truth of what is lost.

This is history as weft. The lineal facts may provide the warp, but without the weft we are unlikely to feel, because we all know what it is to sit beside a mother and hear the family history. "Eat, eat", these women urge Chantal, but they do not necessarily mean just that Chantal should eat the food. Chantal is taking communion, on what is left of the Jewish table.

There is something else to explain about this wonderful film. Chantal Akerman's mother, whose voice we hear from time to time, but never see, is herself a survivor of the Holocaust. She was sent as a child to Auschwitz along with her parents. There her parents perished, murdered by the Nazis. Chantal Akerman's mother returned, now a teenager. The ordeal is unthinkable, and this is surely a central fact of Chantal's life. To listen to one's own mother must have been, for Akerman, far from simple, mitigated only by narratives such as we listen to in Dis-moi: tales of shared meals, child-rearing, struggle and unexpected outcomes. These are also tales of migration and wandering, border-crossing and frontiers. And of course the are the perpetual themes in Akerman's work.

Akerman offers us something of her artist's statement: you have to know your people's history, where you came from, in order to know what to do next.

Adam Roberts