East/West (Est-Ouest)

Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Erwan Baynaud, Oleg Menshikov, Rene Feret, Ruben Tapiero, Sandrine Bonnaire, Serguei Bodrov Jr.
Directed by Regis Wargnier.
Produced by Yves Marmion.
Written by Louis Gardel, Regis Wargnier, Roustam Ibraguimbek and Serguei Bodrov.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Released to theaters in U.S. in 2000. Available on video and DVD.

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film - 2000.
Web site: www.spe.sony.com/classics/eastwest/

Reviewed by Hans Sherrer

For Justice Denied Magazine Vol. 2 Issue 5


The prisons in which people are confined have all sorts of names. In this country, Leavenworth, Marion, Alcatraz and Sing Sing can evoke images of godforsaken places from which no freedom loving person wouldn't want to escape if they could find a way to do so. Every country has prisons that conjure similar mental images of a hellish place reserved for people authorities have deemed for some reason to be unmanageable or deviant.

However, contrary to popular belief that they are havens for only “bad people,” prisons throughout the world are populated by men and women innocent of committing a crime or otherwise harming anyone. Innocent people, for example, are reliably estimated to comprise 10% to 20% of the prison population in this country.

Set in post WWII Europe, East-West graphically portrays life in a prison where 100% of the inmates were innocent: Soviet Russia. The movie does this while telling the true story of a Russian doctor and his French wife and child who were lured to Russia from France after WWII by Stalin's patriotic plea for expatriates to return and help rebuild the war torn country.


From the moment they set foot in Russia off the ship's gangplank, the husband and wife knew they had been tricked by Stalin's promises. Intolerance of dissent and the ironfisted regulation of society by the government were as intense and pervasive as it had been prior to the war. Russia functioned as a gigantic prison guarded by security forces ready to arrest or shoot anyone who might cause trouble or who tried to leave the country without permission.

Although they were granted perks because the husband was a doctor, life in Russia was hard, uncertain and colorless. As it is in all prisons, the stress of their existence was heightened by ever present surveillance and informants rewarded for reporting irregular behavior, such as the woman arrested and shot after she was heard talking to the doctor's wife in French.

Wanting to return home to France with her son, the doctor's wife was unable to do so by diplomatic means. Her desperation to return to France was so intense that she refused to accept her husband's belief that leaving Russia was impossible without official permission. So she began to plan her escape, preferring the risk of death or banishment to Siberia for a period of years if caught, over living with her family in a state of captivity and the constant fear of making a misstep or trusting the wrong person.

Facing significant obstacles designed to prevent anyone's escape from Russia, she exhibited resourcefulness, courage and determination to overcome them and resume the life she had left behind. Most of the movie is devoted to her quest to escape, and it is too intense a story to dilute by revealing how it unfolds. However, the magnitude of frightening situations encountered by those on the run as well as those faced by someone trying to escape from any other prison, and the odds of her success were not much better.

Filmed in a former Soviet Republic, East-West is a first-rate suspenseful drama that shows how strong the drive is within some people to live where their personal freedom, opinions and choices are respected, and the sacrifices their loved ones will make to help them find freedom. The gritty story is so engrossing that it is easy to forget that it is subtitled, since all the characters speak in either French or Russian.

East-West was shown in a limited number of theaters nationwide in the spring of 2000. Now available on video, it is certainly worth renting on a night when you're in the mood for a compelling, but thoughtful and inspirational movie.