Every now and again some critic will celebrate a stolen moment from a movie by saying how much he or she would love to put it on an endless loop, frame it, and hang it up on their wall. From the East suggests what such a repurposed art might resemble. (The film has in the past been presented as a museum installation; the DVD liner notes were reprinted from an exhibition catalog first published at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.) From the director of Jeanne Dielman, a claustrophobic epic about the attempted self-emancipation of a woman from both domesticity and the lack of a narrative, From the East is Chantal Akerman’s own attempt to allow her images the chance to transcend narrative cinema.
That said, the film’s background is clearly germane. Akerman shot the images collected here while traveling between the Westernized portions of Europe and deep within the heart of Russia. The country was at a précis between history and future, and many of the individual frames in Akerman’s motion picture slideshow rumble with the juxtaposition of the Old World and the New. What Akerman does not do is offer exposition, commentary, or argument. Essentially, she eschews the tenets of documentary in order to avoid clouding her presentation up with, as she suggests in her explicatory notes, agenda. The film’s form—rigid, deliberate, transitory—overshadows its debt to reportage as most would understand the term. Overshadows? Make that disregards without malice.
As observed by Jonathan Rosenbaum, From the East is one of Akerman’s—and maybe cinema’—most fully realized attempts at existing as place, not setting. Rosenbaum notes that almost each and every human being caught by Akerman’s camera (some candidly, others in deliberately staged tableaux) appears to be waiting interminably for God knows what, standing and looking and breathing as Akerman pans to the right, pans to the left. Someone looking at the film with a socio-historical bias might say they’re waiting to either be born into or die at the hands of the New World. The cumulative, seductively immersive effect of the movie, though, makes it seem as though they’re waiting for either Godot or for leaves to start sprouting out of their collective, human landscape.