Belgian director Chantal Akerman’s unique cinematic voice has been seen in both fiction film and documentary alike, but there’s a sense of both in From the East, a meditative and elegiac work that resists simple classification. Akerman, best known for her film with a long title and even longer running time, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, applies her own self-assured style to a work that has hints of Jonas Mekas’ experimental diary films, but with a more consistent theme.
In From the East, Akerman pointed her camera at anything that interested her, and the result is a time capsule document of Eastern Europe just after the fall of the Soviet Bloc. Transition is in the air.
In the strictest sense, From the East qualifies as a documentary because its subjects are real people; the segments of lives being played out on screen are actually happening. But there’s no artificial narrative applied — no characters; no quest, conflict, and resolution; no talking at all, in fact. Aside from some incidental dialogue that is never translated via subtitles, the film is wordless.
Instead, we get beautiful and very long tracking shots that encompass a landscape of faces or a location. The documentary format’s requisite talking heads are replaced with static shots of ordinary people in their homes. They never speak. Some look positively uncomfortable with the camera pointed directly at them in their personal space. Some go about their activities undeterred — listening to a record or playing the piano. There doesn’t need to be any explanatory dialogue. The faces tell a story just fine.
The harsh winter when much of the filming takes place adds a somber tone to the mostly unsmiling figures. Their lives are changing; it’s a winter season both literally and figuratively.
Rich in natural sound and a masterwork of mood and environment, From the East is effective as a film watched in one sitting or consumed in small portions. The film was turned into an installation at art museums in 1995, and it’s with this kind of contemplative mindset the film must be approached. Whether one sits and watches for five minutes or for the entire 110-minute running time, one will be rewarded.
The film has been previously unavailable in the United States on DVD, but no longer with the Icarus Films release. There are no extras included on the DVD itself, but a booklet containing Akerman’s reflections on the film is included.