tue 19/03/2019

Maidan | reviews, news & interviews

Maidan

Maidan

Observation of Ukraine revolution remains just that

Flying the blue and yellow flag on Kiev's Maidan Square

I went into watching Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary Maidan with the highest hopes, and came out, more than two hours later, cold. For a film about a successful national liberation movement, that’s something of a paradox.

It’s titled, of course, after Kiev’s Independence Square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the centre point of the Ukrainian revolution that saw huge public gatherings from December 2013 through February of last year which culminated with then president Viktor Yanukovych fleeing first his capital city on 22 February 2014 and a few days later his country (he remains in Russia today). A monumental block of a film that treats its subject in the most formal, rigorous style possible, it simply observes, mostly from fixed camera stations on street level, though towards the end we see street fighting from high vantage points, and early scenes catch interiors which double as places to rest and for preparing food for those on the square outside.

Do we have any basic sense of what any of its passing characters were actually feeling?

It was an unprecedented mass uprising, the final outcome of which probably surprised even some of its most ardent supporters. The prelude had come in November 2013, when Yanukovych changed his mind on signing a key political association agreement with the European Union, transferring his country’s future loyalties instead to Russia. Over the three months of its existence the protest camp changed profile, as indicated in the film in a handful of inter-titles: from an early December atmosphere that was almost carnival-like, then keener national support and resistance after general anti-protest laws were passed in early January, through an 18 February march on parliament, followed finally by the use of live ammunition on protestors that resulted in more than 100 dead, and as many who disappeared without trace. Even Yanukovich’s precipitate departure came as something of a surprise, given that EU negotiators had just brokered a much longer-term handover of power.

Most generously interpreted, Maidan can be viewed as something of an abstract meditation on struggle. We overhear what’s spoken by random protestors as they veer in and out of shot, as well as speeches and concert appearances from the square’s central stage (snatches of poetry, too: “And on the throne of Ukraine/A greedy bandit keeps his reign” – as fitting an epitaph to the venal Yanukovych regime as any). But do we have any basic sense of what any of its passing characters were actually feeling? It’s the absence of any such impression that makes Maidan strangely distant, a curious reaction to a struggle that changed the course of a country (and in which the director was very much involved on a personal level).In his past work Loznitsa has favoured just such a "withdrawn" style: it was there in his 2006 documentary Blockade, which collated archive footage of the World War Two siege of Leningrad, the main directorial interpretation there coming in the sound. For Maidan material was filmed by cameramen Serhiy Stetsenko and Mykhailo Yelchev, as well as the director himself (who wasn’t actually present for all the events captured): one of the more dramatic moments comes when they’re forced to move from an established filming spot after police used teargas on the press. Directorial interpretation came obviously in the editing (credited to Loznitsa and Danielius Kokanauskis), and in the spare but occasionally affecting soundscape he put over the result (sound designer, Vladimir Golovnitski). Loznitsa’s last two directorial efforts have seen him move into fiction, with the acclaimed features My Joy and In the Fog: that commitment to narrative, not to mention character, seems a world away from Maidan.

Turning rapidly unfolding revolutionary events into documentary cinema brings inevitable challenges, most often that of trying to create a narrative before the story itself has played out. Similar issues came up in the Arab Spring, and the inevitable comparison to Maidan is with events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, as depicted most notably in Jehame Noujiam’s The Square: with real accomplishment, that film took the path of picking out and following individual stories from among the crowd. It needed, inevitably, time for editing, while Maidan was playing at last year’s Cannes festival barely three months after the final events depicted. Closer to Loznitsa’s home territory, albeit three decades ago, there was remarkable work by Latvian director Juris Podnieks about the “Singing Revolution” in the Baltics that virtually coincided with the collapse of Communism there. But Podnieks was working for British television; Loznitsa was making Maidan for the film festivals where it has indeed subsequently appeared. The worst charge that could be levelled is using real-life events for purely aesthetic purpose.

I think one of the Cannes reviewers from last year said that Maidan is a film that will stand up five years after the civil conflict that it depicts has become history. I hope it does. But I certainly hope that other directors will have come forward by then to tackle the subject in a way that’s just more accessible.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Maidan

 


 

I certainly hope that other directors will have come forward by then to tackle the subject in a way that’s just more accessible

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Average: 2 (1 vote)

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