This week an estimated 100,000 Russians gathered outside the Kremlin to celebrate the first anniversary of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. It’s striking to compare images of those cheering Russians with the images of impassioned Ukrainians in Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary Maidan. The film opens on a sea of faces spiritedly singing the Ukrainian national anthem at a rally against the government in Kiev’s central square (a movement that would become known as “Euromaidan”). Two hours of edited footage later, Maidan closes on the same sea of faces at a vigil in the same central square, spiritedly chanting “Heroes never die!” in memory of citizens killed in the political violence that preceded the Crimean annexation.
Director: Sergei Loznitsa
Premiere: May 21, 2014 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 12, 2014
US Distributor: Cinema Guild
In between these scenes, Maidan offers an engrossing but often disorienting record of a modern democratic movement systematically dismantled by Soviet-era authoritarian tactics. Covering roughly the period from November 2013 to February 2014, Loznitsa’s film is a devastating document of perhaps the most important political upheaval in Ukraine’s modern history. What begins as a peaceful occupation by Ukrainians disillusioned and disappointed by President Victor Yanukovych’s decision to turn his back on the EU in favor of Russia, ends with some 100 lives lost and the future sovereignty of Ukraine in question.
Loznitsa’s static filmmaking style is reminiscent of renowned documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s fly-on-the-wall approach, which I once heard described as “stubbornly observational.” Indeed, not only does Maidan lack any interviews or narration, but it scarcely even offers written titles on screen about what is happening, where or when. For this reason, and despite the worldwide media coverage the Ukrainian situation received last year, casual viewers may quickly lose their footing trying to identify the various influences and forces directing both the protestors and the police. One can sense a simmering tension as the rallies in Kiev become more desperate, but the sudden escalation of events is jarring and confusing.
But while Maidan doesn’t really explain what is going on, what happens over the course of those few months is clear. Neither Putin nor Yanukovych are ever seen or heard from, but their presence is palpable: Putin in the removed, who, me? manner with which he implements his foreign policy, and Yanukovych in the negligent leadership that allows the situation to devolve from calm to chaos to coffins. Loznitsa also rarely shows us the source of voices that are heard giving speeches or talking off camera. The citizens are anonymous and the government is nowhere to be seen, looming over as a menacing force in the shadows.
It’s an imperfect analogy, but Euromaidan is to the Arab Spring as Maidan is to the Oscar-nominated The Square, the difference being The Square was more emotionally gripping, more conventional, and also, importantly, more informative about the reasons behind Egypt’s uprising. Maidan is a kind of political art film by contrast, less interested in telling us a story than in testing our patience and our ability to separate reality from rhetoric. During one day of violence a protest leader implores citizens to “understand that our emotions are our enemies”—a phrase brought to life by Loznitsa as he drains the proceedings of any feeling, stepping back from it all literally (using a super zoom lens) and figuratively. Eventually even images of raging fires, thick black smoke, and white hot tear gas fail to deliver an emotional punch.
Perhaps Loznitsa didn’t want to be accused of making an partisan film, but whatever his motive the detached style occasionally weakens the substance, abandoning viewers to their own interpretation of the factors behind the Ukrainian Revolution. Some of the camera takes are also unbearably long during scenes when, for example, people simply walk down stairs or enter buildings. Patriotism aside, one also wonders if we need to see the national anthem sung in full three times, especially when we’re given no deeper understanding of the occasions for which it’s typically sung.
These quibbles aside, Maidan remains an artful and timeless demonstration of democracy in action, and leaves viewers hungry to find out what happened next (and beforehand, for that matter). As a documentary in the purest form, it successfully illustrates the resilient spirit of a Ukrainian people whose national and ethnic identity have been used as pawns in the ongoing chess match between Russia and the West for decades. Indeed the spirit of Euromaidan is visible throughout Maidan, even if the deeper complexities of the political situation are sacrificed for the sake of art.