From the East

03/14/2010

Belgium / 1993 / French

Directed by Chantal Akerman

Still from 'From the East'From the East, Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s absorbing and nearly wordless travelogue of Eastern Europe, explores the former Soviet Bloc through its rural landscapes, serene and lonely; its blue, industrial vistas and snow-robed city scenes. In the details of these places, which run the gamut from vast and depressing railway terminals to a stately concert hall, the director seeks to define the atmospheres and moods of these recently changed nations with all of their uncertainty and circumspect footing in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. She does so not by looking for scenes that typify places, but ones through which, by way of the inherent singularity of the moment, she can elicit the details that illustrate the inner life of what is described primarily on the surface.

The film’s initial shots are bracketed by rectilinear compositions – including the straight lines of a highway at night, a window frame looking out onto a country road – and, with a tranquility only occasionally broken by a car zooming past, Akerman gradually makes the point of view more oblique, until the viewer is situated in the middle of the road itself. Thus the feeling of travel is initiated, as streets come to prominent use throughout the rest of the film, variously as vantage points and as guiding paths for lateral movement. Akerman’s contemplative tracking shots that punctuate the proceedings move slowly, observing the people in public settings. While things are developing, coming into the frame, they are also in the process of receding. Some of the people she films laugh and shout with little self-consciousness, while many of the faces show a mixture of solemn resignation and vague suspicion as they look up at the passing camera crew.

Still from 'From the East'And there are many faces in the film; Akerman chooses densely peopled convergence points, such as stations and public buildings, to observe normal folk in the midst of their waiting, their curiously undefinable in-between times that provide, in a sense, the purest distillation of who they are and how they are, in a crowd. They talk to one another but voices are subsumed by the ambient noises around them. This muted, auditory disconnect is an intentional effort to eschew articulation in favor of embodiment, for while sync sound seems to figure into every shot, understanding peoples’ words, or even listening to them, would detract from our meditative watching and hearing. The emcee at a musical event in a coastal resort town, in spite of his amplified announcements, is relegated to the deep backdrop, our focus being on the seated audience members who are watching him.

While From the East is very much about a certain region, in a certain time period, its specificity (represented in distant vernacular music, shale-colored cities, people’s winter clothing and anachronistic cars) is secondary to capturing that which is communicated implicitly or expressed without intent: the collections of gazes and shifting fields of discrete movements. We are never told or even given many clues as to where the film is set. In that way, Akerman is defying place, and looking at the ancillary aspects of what we see, those that are alternately more elemental or nuanced. It has a similar geographic scope to her later film South (1999), which explores the Southern United States. But that documentary moves from a similar uncommenting chronicling to really becoming about an event (the 1998 racial murder of an African-American man, James Byrd, Jr., in Texas) that happened while Akerman was making it, and the film takes on something approaching a narrative quality. Interestingly, From the East has much in common with her Jeanne Dielmann, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), for its indexical nature, albeit more pared-down and loosely descriptive than the earlier work. The address in the latter’s title is a wry indication of its exhaustiveness, since location itself bares little import to its focus. Devoid of imposed analysis, both films build up, through observation of the nondescript and unarticulated moments, a richly detailed image of daily life.

Still from 'From the East'As a counterpoint to the transience and temporal ephemerality of the exterior sequences, Akerman offers a series of quietly intimate interior portraits of people at home, a sort of ‘material world’–level view of domestic anatomies. A young woman applies makeup, a television sputters out evening programming, an old man quickly and fastidiously wolfs down lunch by himself. In some cases the people have an activity, and in others they are merely sitting in a room. At times they are looking numbly at an undefined place, as if posing for a painting (which, in a way, they are), and at other times they look straight into the camera, returning the viewer’s observation with a reciprocal gaze.

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