From the East (D’est): Chantal Akerman’s Chronicle of Eastern Europe

Toronto Festival of Festivals, Sep. 14, 1993– Applying her minimalist approach to the new, changing reality of Eastern Europe, avant-garde director Chantal Akerman’s From the East (D’est) is one of her most demanding “semi-fictional” documentaries. Even by standards of her own work, the utterly wordless film is one of Akerman’s least accessible. At the same time, pic is a must-see for every cineaste concerned with the unique language of cinema.

Taking her relentless cameras from East Germany to Russia, From the East is Akerman’s impressionistic report from the new front. Displaying her distinctive visual style, influenced by structuralism and minimalism, her journal unfolds as a procession of post-cards that record empty landscapes, or people positioned against them.

Akerman’s dialectical strategy consists of a series of oppositions, including the seasons and time of the day in which the scenery was shot. Spanning from summer to winter, docu chronicles the country side of East Germany, the beaches of the Baltics, the traffic of Poland, the snowy streets of Moscow, etc.

Unlike the much more interesting News From Home (l977), Akerman’s personal chronicle of New York, From the East has no dialogue, no commentary, and very little music–its soundtrack records traffic noises or voices that are hardly audible. As could be expected, there are few indoor scenes or close-ups; most of the imagery involves long takes.

Alternating a studiously static camera with lengthy tracking shots, Akerman captures the essence, if not the historical particulars, of a region on the move. The two dominant visual motifs, people marching and people waiting in large train stations, reinforce the uncertainty of the future and yet continuous change of societies that have undergone political upheaval.

As with every Akerman work, the new film is as much about a specific subject matter as about the basic elements of the language of cinema–the relationship between narrative, space, and time. However, From the East may be one of the few Akerman films in which there is no astute consideration of gender or discussion of women’s role in modern society.

As a filmmaker, Akerman is full of surprises: Those who thought that after The Golden Eighties (l986), a satire of musicals with plot and fast pacing, her work will become more “commercial,” will be disappointed. Enjoying the largest walk-out at the Toronto Festival, some viewers will complain that it’s a boring, meaningless minimalist exercise. Akerman’s fans, however, will be awed again by her visual aesthetics and consider it a footnote in the career of an innovative filmmaker.

Credits

France/Belgium/Portugal Documentary-chronicle, color

A Paradise Films/Lieurach Productions presentation. Produced by Francois Le Bayon. Executive producer, Marilyn Watelet. Directed, written by Chantal Akerman. Camera (color), Raimond Froment, Bernard Delville; editor, Claire Atherton; sound, Pierre Mertens.

Running time: 106 min.