A l’Est avec Sonia Wieder-Atherton
Chantal Ackerman’s projects over the past forty years have secured her place in the international vanguard of film directors both male and female. Her films are widely known for experimenting with time and images while questioning their relationship to a film’s narrative. It’s no surprise that her film A l’Est avec Sonia Wieder-Atherton showed at the Barcelona International Woman’s Film Festival in June. In fifty-one minutes Ackerman attempts to show the power of music and the passion of the musician through images. It is her second film with world renowned cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton as her subject, and weather or not Ackerman achieves her goal is up to you.
Wieder-Atherton is Ackerman’s go-to musician and has been the music director in many of her previous films including D’Eest, which is where the repertoire of music for this documentary originates. Viewers expecting the typical dialogue-heavy documentary film of a musician will be disappointed, as Wieder-Atherton speaks for only a brief moment after the opening scene of her playing in what appears to be a concert hall. She describes how her passion for the cello and violin cello began developing from a very early age, and how inspiring her maestro was. The remainder of the film is Wieder-Atherton using her instrument to explain her passion.
Ackerman chose to shoot Wieder-Atherton playing the eastern European compositions accompanied by only a piano or sometimes two other cellists. Ackerman uses various visual tactics so as not to distract from her true subject: the music. For example, the full color film never extends beyond a softly illuminated neutral gray, black, and white color palate. Wieder-Atherton herself alternates between two black and white silk blouses with grand billowing sleeves that appear to oscillate like wings as she pulls, teases, and coaxes the notes from her cello’s strings. Alternating shots between close ups of Wieder-Atherton’s hands and the whole ensemble paired with scenes that begin and end with fades creates a fluidity to the images that reflects the melody of the music. Composition titles as well as composers are provided for a short time at the bottom of the screen to indicate the beginning of another piece.
It is clear that Ackerman wants to distance herself and her images as far from the music as possible in order to create a truly musical experience. The audience at the Barcelona festival was, indeed, lulled into this entranced state of visual listening; however, Ackerman’s objective became lost as eyelids grew heavy and heads began to bob. Toward the end, awake once again, people began to shift impatiently in their seats.
It should be noted that although this film is reflective of Ackerman’s style it is not the more evocative of her influential talent. Audiences familiar with Ackerman’s previous work might expect a more challenging film, and novel viewers might find it a bit tedious and trying in the end. Without a doubt, the power of the music interpreted by Wieder-Atherton is transmitted, but it’s the viewer’s responsibility to be an active receiver.