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Tuesday, December 11, 2001

About The East?

By Kevin John

Chantal Akerman's 1993 "D'est" (commonly translated as "From the East," but it can also mean "About the East") is a travelogue of sorts. Taking her camera across Eastern Europe and Russia, the genius Belgian director simply filmed, in her words, "everything that moves me." The viewer absolutely gets that feeling that she threw in all sorts of disparate elements. Many shots are static — observing a man sitting on a bench, or watching a crowd pass by, leaving a concert. The only motion at times is that of people and/or cars as they move in and out of the frame, closer to or farther from the camera. Other shots are mobile, following a crowd passing by or slowly moving down a snowy avenue.

But from this seemingly random assortment, ineffable tensions begin to arise. For instance, public and private spaces get juxtaposed. There are many interior shots of people in their homes, applying lipstick or listening to a blaring television. Toward the beginning, a woman sits primly on the edge of a couch. Her proximity to the camera and the stationary shot suggest that Akerman was granted some sort of privilege to place her camera within this space. In fact, the shot almost looks like portraiture, an extreme contrast to the aggressively nondescript public spheres, to which presumably anyone could gain access with a camera.

A shot tracks a scattered group of people, waiting. The soundtrack appears to be in sync, catching the ambient sounds and random chitchat (although we do hear bits of talking now and then, "D'est" is virtually a "silent" film, reinforced by the fact that there are no subtitles). But then, a violin plays a riff. Where is it coming from? Is it from the same place as the people waiting, off-camera somewhere? Or is it part of a soundtrack Akerman fashioned for the film in post-production?

By now, it should clear that "D'est" is an extremely difficult film. Among other things, it's been seen as a time capsule capturing the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that moment before Western values take over and every area of life becomes commodified. At least that's the implication behind such an analysis, and the final tracking shot, as it glides past a Pepsi sign, seems to bear that out. So it would be fascinating to see this world again in 2001, to note if Akerman's meditation on these grounds has been justified (just as it would be fascinating to view "D'est" in tandem with Chris Marker's narrated tour of Tokyo, "Sans Soleil").

But the time spent looking at these images along with Akerman's camera makes any overweening analysis seem reductive. If "D'est" is "about" anything, it concerns our own perception. Thus there will necessarily be an endless array of responses — when and where (and if) we pick up tensions, what stories (if any) we impose on the film, how (and if) our concentration flags and gets reinvested, etc. Finally, this is the grand, creepy challenge of "D'est" — it affords us knowledge of our viewing experiences, but it is up to us to apply the experiences to our visions upon leaving the theatre.


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