Eastern Promises

Melissa Anderson on Chantal Akerman’s From the East

Chantal Akerman, D’Est (From the East), 1993, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 110 minutes.

“WHILE THERE’S STILL TIME, I would like to make a grand journey across Eastern Europe. To Russia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the former East Germany, and back to Belgium,” Chantal Akerman says of the impetus behind her monumental 1993 documentary, D’Est (From the East). While there’s still time suggests urgency, a need to capture, if not catalogue, the former Soviet bloc in its earliest, most precarious stages of transition: A fleetingly glimpsed Panasonic shopping bag hints at the free markets to come. Yet time slows and expands in Akerman’s mesmerizing travelogue, as she “shoot[s] everything. Everything that moves me.”

Akerman, the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, follows the seasons, beginning at the end of summer and concluding in deepest winter. Slavic languages are heard, Cyrillic letters seen on signs, though towns, cities, and countries are never identified. Rather than having an unmooring, distancing effect (at least for the non–Eastern European viewer), Akerman’s method uncannily draws the spectator in, as we glimpse both public and private settings. There are several shots of interminable lines, people huddled at bus and train stations and outside phone booths, silent resignation sometimes giving way to tetchy-sounding outbursts. Juxtaposed with the exterior scenes are Akerman’s precise, fixed-camera compositions of the rituals, pleasures, and lulls of domestic life—episodes that resonate with the director’s first masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman (1975). A woman standing in her kitchen looks down, her head bobbing slightly to music. A teenage girl, sitting on a couch, assiduously applies lipstick. A little boy watches TV, an older relative (his brother? His father?) playing the piano right next to him.

From the East is the first of Akerman’s documentaries to focus on geographic location; 1999’s Sud (South), set in Jasper, Texas, where James Byrd Jr. was dragged to his death, and 2002’s De l’Autre Côté (From the Other Side), shot along the Arizona-Mexico border, would follow. Of this trilogy, From the East is the only one without interviews. The people and places of From the East may be unnamed, but they are not anonymous: Their images are indelible.

Chantal Akerman’s From the East is available on DVD from Icarus Films Home Video beginning October 6. For more details, click here.