Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
Original Title: D’Est
Belgium/France/Portugal, 1993. Lieurac Productions, Paradise Films, Radiotelevisão Portuguesa, La Sept-Arte, Centre de l’Audiovisuel à Bruxelles, Radio Television Belge Francophone, Centre du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, Loterie Nationale de Belgique, Fonds Eurimages du Conseil de l’Europe. Screenplay by Chantal Akerman. Cinematography by Bernard Delville, Rémon Fromont. Produced by François Le Bayon. Film Editing by Claire Atherton, Agnès Bruckert.
Chantal Akerman’s documentaries are powerful records of places, cultures and experiences using lengthy, motionless takes of deceptively mundane moments that, once your eyes are given enough time to saturate their contents, become wondrous worlds of fascinating detail. Interspersed with these moments of meditation are her famous tracking shots, which pan, usually right to left, and record spontaneous movement and life, taking in the reactions of the people caught on camera as they notice her passing them. This wondrous film, one of her most powerful non-fiction works, looks to capture the constantly shifting realities of eastern European countries after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, Akerman traveled from East Germany to Moscow recording images and put everything that made the deepest impression on her into the final cut.
The sequences vary in range, there’s partying in the streets, late summer harvesting in verdant fields, snow falling on crowds in city squares (with plenty of people either turning from or yelling at the camera) and even a live performance by Natalia Chakhovskaia, professor of cello at the Tchaïkovski school of music, playing a piece by that great composer on a stage (the film takes place mostly in outdoor spaces, but this and shots of some people in their homes is among the minority of indoor ones).
Akerman’s later films South and From The Other Side would operate in a similar vein but their quiet moments of reflection are broken up by information from interview subjects, who put everything in context. Here you don’t have any narration or dialogue except what is spontaneously captured on film, and if you don’t understand the languages being spoken you won’t know what it is you’re hearing. You don’t even know where you are unless you recognize landmarks, Akerman travels across the Baltics without using place cards, instead allowing the viewer to soak up the energy and atmosphere of what she has captured, a trip not only visual but spiritual as well.
Raised in Belgium, the director is the daughter of Polish Jews who emigrated west after the second World War (her mother a survivor of Auschwitz), and this cinematic journey, inspired by a trip she conducted to Moscow to research the poet Anna Akhmatova, is one that clearly means more to her than just the curiosity of visiting foreign lands.
Toronto International Film Festival: 1993