Judge Ben Saylor likes watching people waiting a lot more than waiting himself.
"While there's still time, I would like to make a grand journey across Eastern Europe…I'd like to film there, in my own style of documentary bordering on fiction. I'd like to shoot everything. Everything that moves me."—Chantal Akerman
2009 saw the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but of vastly lesser importance, I became aware of the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, via the Criterion Collection release of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a mesmerizing, disquieting epic that fairly blew my mind. I was entranced by Akerman's still, precise framing, painstakingly deliberate pacing, and subtle shifts in the day-to-day activities of the film's title character.
My reaction to Jeanne Dielman made me eager to review From the East, a film Akerman created not long after the Wall crumbled. I was not disappointed with what I ended up seeing, for From the East, like Jeanne Dielman, is a film unlike most I've seen. There is no voiceover narration or particular structure to the film; only what Akerman's camera records. Over the course of the film's 110 minutes, we see, in the filmmaker's own words: "Faces, streets, cars going by and buses, train stations and plains, rivers and oceans, streams and brooks, trees and forests. Fields and factories and yet more faces. Food, interiors, doors, windows, meals being prepared. Women and men, young and old, people passing by or at rest, seated or standing, even lying down. Days and nights, wind and rain, snow and springtime."
There are no titles included to indicate from where the film's shots are taken, but such detail seems superfluous for this quietly powerful and hypnotic film. Forget where exactly a given shot was made and focus instead on what populates the frame: couples dancing to a band in a large hall; a woman preparing food inside a kitchen (shades of Jeanne Dielman here); a man playing the piano while a child watches television. The camera is alternately static or tracking left to right, with many shots lasting several minutes.
Upon examining my notes on the film, however, I noticed that one of the aspects of From the East that really stuck out in my mind is how often Akerman depicts her subjects waiting. Two particularly lengthy shots come to mind, one that takes place inside some kind of terminal, and another that takes place in a cold outdoor location. In the case of each shot, I found myself quickly absorbed by the environment being filmed (in one case, a grubby, old station; in the other, a chilly, bleak waiting area) and by the people within the frame. The latter were particularly interesting; "women and men, young and old," indeed. Some appear to react to the camera, but many simply seem indifferent as they sit (or stand), stone-faced, waiting and waiting and waiting.
As the essay included with this DVD makes clear, From the East is very much a personal film. Further, considering its absence of structure or narrative, it's not a particularly accessible one. Because of time constraints, I had to watch the movie in three sittings, but in all honesty, even if I hadn't been forced to watch the movie this way, I still might have broken it up. Make no mistake, however, this film is challenging, but definitely worth watching.
From the East is presented on a DVD wherein the image is frequently grainy and hazy, particularly in darker shots. You need only to examine the DVD cover image to get an idea of what to expect with the film. While sound is unimportant for From the East in terms of conveying dialogue and music, the ambient sounds Akerman captures-cars going by, footsteps, and just general background noise-are a key element of the film's success, and they come through fairly well on the sound mix provided here. No subtitles are included, but they're not necessary. There are no extras on the disc itself, but a booklet is included with an essay by Akerman about the film.
Do not let the less-than-stellar DVD quality from seeking out and watching From the East, however. Fans of Chantal Akerman's work are almost sure to enjoy this, and perhaps the film will introduce the director to some new admirers as well.
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