Reasearch notes – Chantal Akerman

The following observations are made after looking at some excerpts from Akerman’s documentary film D’Est (link to Wikipedia entry) available in YouTube.

The entire documentary, which is just under two hours long, traces Akerman’s trip to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It includes portraits of people doing ordinary things at home, like eating and listening to music, as well as people walking on the streets and / or relaxing at a social club. The documentary is not available in its entirety in YouTube, so it is hard for me to know how the various vignettes captured by Akerman come together as a whole film and whether there is an overarching narrative on top of them.  My favourite excerpts from the documentary are the following ones:

This clip starts with some incidental music on the background (a violin piece) that soon fades away. I do not know if the music was there in ambient or added in post processing, but its sadness fits well with the scene, which is just people in an open field (perhaps a bus station) standing, waiting for something or walking. The camera pans the scene slowly and at an irregular pace, slowing down or even stopping for a second in certain places. Most of the people do not mind the presence of the camera and chose to ignore it, sometimes not even looking at it, but others seem to object quite strongly, although it is impossible to know what they are saying and no subtitles are provided. The whole scene, which lasts for about 6 minutes or so, has a very strong feeling of intrusion. The camera is very close to its subjects, and the pace with which it pans gives the sensation that it is scrutinising everybody in the scene. It makes for some uncomfortable watch, and I am surprised people did not object to this more vehemently. At some point I even though that the whole scene had been staged and these people were just extras doing a part, but that seems highly improbable. After the scene in the open, the movie moves to the inside of what appears to be a bus or a train station, packed with people sitting, waiting or talking over pay phones. There is even more people in here, but the camera maintains its close, inquisitive and slow irregular movement, unstoppable and not caring about anything.


The next clip takes place in what appears to be a grand ballroom at a restaurant or social club. A live band is playing and people gradually starts to fill the dance floor. Unlike the previous sequence, the camera here is static and located relatively away from the subjects, recording without discrimination everything that comes in front of it, offering a true “fly on the wall” experience. The sequence reminds me a little bit of my childhood, watching people at family parties when they had no idea how to dance or were tone-deaf and would simply twist and turn hysterically in the middle of the dance floor. The attitude of some of the characters veers towards ridicule Particularly a character that enters the frame late and tries to interact with the musicians in the middle of the song, finally climbing on top of the stage. It is not clear if he finally speaks to the musicians or if they just ignore him. He then proceeds to leave the frame unceremoniously, as if he was slightly ashamed of not having been able to made contact. I like this sequence very much because is an observational piece: the position of the camera and the angle of view allows the action to come to our view, in all its details, and we can choose to focus on whatever captures our imagination, without any prescription and without anybody else editing what we see. Is as close as we can get to actually being there. I am left wondering if it would also be possible to achieve the same sensation with a still. A picture so encompassing, immersing, that makes us feel inside the frame.


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