In his fantastic new documentary, Maidan (2014), revered Belarusian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa presents the public protest that eventually led to the toppling of the Ukranian premiere, Viktor Yanukovych, through a number of dichotomies. It is rigorous but unhurried; cool but compelling; faceless but personal; old-fashioned reportage and formally challenging modern cinema. Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) was the venue for demonstrations in late 2013 that concluded in brutal clashes with the police and played a key role in the president’s impeachment. Loznitsa’s unblinking camera observes this tumultuous period.
One might expect that a film conveying the struggles of a civil uprising would skew towards specific stories, deploying them as synechdoches to represent the entirety of their cause. In Jehane Noujaim’s The Square (2013) she followed three characters amidst the crowds of Tahrir Square and expected her audience to extrapolate out the wider political landscape. Loznitsa is not concerned with individual stories, though. From his opening watching a mass of people singing the Ukranian national anthem, like a lamentation, it is clear that the ‘many’, and their betrayal by their rulers, are what matter. Using pristine locked-off shots and providing almost no context – save for a handful of title cards that narrate time shifts or the most top-level newsworthy developments – this is a pure visual narrative.
The building national dissatisfaction can be heard via speeches that regularly permeate the frame from off screen, but more often than not the focus of any particular shot must be chosen by viewers themselves. Some of the clinically captured tableaux just feature people milling around, while others involve food being prepared or addresses made to the gathered crowd. That is, of course, before the police stand-off and ensuing violence begin. Smoke billows from fires; activists hurl projectiles; riot police line the streets. Loznitsa records everything – terrifying and riveting – uncensored but from a dispassionate arm’s length away, and viewers eyes decide where to settle. As one lengthy wide-shot peers down at the desolation, a voice continually beseeches any protesters with medical training to congregate on a nearby street where there are presumably numerous casualties.
In another, the press themselves must avoid the conflict, leading to the one moment of memorable, and necessary camera movement. Despite this, though, the decision to remain removed does hold Maidan back from sweeping the audience up in the revolutionary fervour and immersion in the proceedings. At the other end of the spectrum, Loznitsa’s reluctance to rely on traditional tools like voiceover or talking heads limits the potential of this as informative record. A record it remains, however, and an engrossing, arresting and singular source through which to view this very specific moment in recent Ukrainian history.
Maidan featured in CineVue’s ‘Best films of 2014’ feature. You can read the full list here
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson