Maidan Nezalezhnosti is a square in the centre of Kiev in Ukraine. It gained its name – literally translated as Independence Square – in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s subsequent declaration of independence. It has been a focal point for protest and dissent, forming the fire point for the Orange Revolution which saw the election of Viktor Yushchenko in 2004. The square was in fact such a thorn in the oligarchy’s side that at one point extensive renovations were planned in order to cordon off the public space and so stifle public protest. In late 2013, the Euromaidan protest began, initially demanding a closer integration with Europe and a shift away from Russia.
The protests were at first ignored and then violently suppressed, by which time the demands were for an end to corruption and human rights abuses in Ukraine. Shown at Cannes in 2014 only months following the success of the protests as President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country, Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary Maidan (2014) is a stunning piece of political cinema and a documentary of quietly moving power and beauty. With a rigid formalist’s eye, Loznitsa eschews context, interviews, voiceover and talking heads, preferring to let his images tell their own story. A sea of faces singing the national anthem in the winter sunlight, the slow growth of the tent village of the protesters introduce us to a varied people who have had enough and have decided to dig in for the long fight.
As with many a revolution, this one begins with lengthy stretches of boredom and Loznitsa includes long tableaus of people hanging about, curious and wary. A revolution is not just fought on the barricades but also in the canteen where the sandwiches are made. His shots are so beautifully composed that they are worth staying with and mini-dramas can be spotted to the side of the frame unfolding. The revolutionary helper being scolded for not wearing gloves while he makes sandwiches; the old man – a veteran, perhaps, of many a protest – bursting into impromptu song while his wife stands by looking embarrassed. Endless speeches from the loudspeaker and the occasional rumourmongering chit-chat form the soundtrack, mixed in with the prayers of the Orthodox Priests and the mournful singing of old partisan songs. Slowly but surely the opposition and the police begin to trade blows. Loznitsa’s own camera for a moment must move quickly to avoid harm and his detachment threatened, but the panic is momentary.
Night time scenes of fire and battle are filmed with the same unflinching gaze as the sandwich making and boredom of the first half of the film. Blood begins to be spilled and speeches give way to panicked calls for medical attention. The film makes no pretence to objectivity. Maidan is positioned with the people, of the people and for the people. The film is the biography of a crowd becoming a people. And yet there is also no triumphalism to the piece. There is a lasting sense of grief at the lives lost and destroyed. Images of the protests were beamed around the world and the protesters themselves hold their mobile phone cameras up like flashing icons. But in our 24 hour news cycle, the images of protest we get are always the same from Tahir Square to the Occupy movements, boiled down to clouds of tear gas, a burning bus and baton charges. Maidan gives us the day to day anatomy of a struggle, at times dull, at times nightmarish, like something from Breughel, but ultimately powerfully compelling. And once more a timely reminder of how hard won freedom can be and how vicious the forces who seek to suppress it.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty