“From the East”
Eastern Europe After the Fall of the USSR
Chantal Akerman’s “From the East” (“D’Est”) is something of an experimental film,. Akerman took a trip through Eastern Europe to document life there after the collapse of the Soviet Union where she filmed people who seem to be waiting for something. The images that we see are gorgeous and tend to push us into a state of meditation about the past.
There is no text and no voiceover. The only sound that we hear is what was being filmed at the time. There is no story and no characters in any traditional sense and no one ever tells us where a particular location is. Akerman uses two types of shots in the film. One is the tracking shot, always a slow, steady, unbroken shot and the camera never pauses to pick out a particular person or detail. The other type of shot is the static shot that is usually head-on, unmoving. Sometimes this is an interior shot of someone at home making a sandwich, watching TV or more often, just sitting staring into the lens. Sometimes it is an exterior shot of a building and
the viewer is forced to draw his or her own conclusions. The dominating motifs are movement and waiting. We see unbelievably long lines of people waiting. Sometimes it’s obvious that they’re waiting for a bus or a train but at other times, it is not clear. We see a lot of motion— cars go by, people are walking and there’s a lot of hustle and bustle but we never reach any destination. Here is society in transition, that is uncertain of where it’s going or what to do next.
Early in the film, we see youths dancing at a rock concert and this is the most joyful and active scene we witness. It’s almost a static shot, but we catch some movement as the camera keeps the dancers in the frame. Late in the film, we see a cellist perform a Tchaikovsky solo. As she finishes, the camera slowly moves to the edge of the stage, where admirers wait to present her with flowers. Both of these incongruous shots are centered around music and we wonder if Akerman if suggesting that the appreciation of the arts is a source of hope and light for these people as well as a break from the routine of waiting or it is simply a matter of being the best way to capture what she wanted to capture at those moments. While the movie otherwise has a rigid formal construction, these shots stand out and make you think.
The film is an excellent piece of anthropological voyeurism that puts us into the middle of a particular type of society at a particular time. We can enjoy merely watching the reactions of people to the camera and there are many faces to take in, and these faces mesmerize us.