NZIFF – Maïdan
Providing a stark window into a string of Ukrainian protests—beginning with ‘Euromaidan’ in late November 2013 protesting the government’s decision to back out of signing an Association Agreement with the European Union and culminating with the Ukrainian Revolution of 21-23 February 2014 which saw then President Viktor Yanukovych flee the country and the government overthrown and replaced—Sergeï Loznitsa’s documentary Maïdan is a beautifully photographed if oddly layered experience. On the one hand there are plenty of dramatic and disturbing events punctuating the 130 minute runtime, on the other the director highlights the mundanity of a lengthy protest movement. This layer of mundaneness brings to mind the worldwide ‘Occupy’ protest movement which attempted to maintain elongated momentum toward change but ultimately found that it needed a tighter focus on specific desired results rather than a generalised dissatisfaction with current power/economic structures to affect ongoing change. I was also reminded of an experimental short film I once viewed which edited together several random overnight clips from various city centre security cameras into an 18 minute piece. The point of this exercise was to contrast the reality of night-time activity in an inner city environment with the overblown media portrayals of the constant dangers of the dark.
Maïdan shows both the rousing crescendos of a fully occupied square demonstrating as well as the sparsely gathered congregants in between ‘events’ who need feeding and sheltering and something to do. Loznitsa and co-camera operators Serhiy Stefan Stetsenko and Mykhailo Yelchev work primarily with very long takes in locked off frames. This is consistent with the meditative framing and shooting style the director has employed in his fiction features such as My Joy (2010). In such a documentary this style serves to capture the ebbs and flows of extended activism and to highlight the fact that tactics of suppression are the surest means to galvanising the various protest factions and sparking renewed vigour for the cause. One of the great difficulties of any massed demonstration is to maintain significant momentum to keep things going in any real form—an example of this can be seen in the unfocused demonstration captured in Frederick Wiseman’s documentary At Berkeley where university admin wisely left protesters to their own devices for an entire day/evening occupation of one of the campus libraries and the demonstration dispersed of its own accord before the night was out—but Maïdan shows a determined core of citizens and enough of a disaffected mass to actually stick to their metaphorical and literal guns. The film also has the sense of a work by someone who is not just observing but is intimately sewn into the fabric of the protest. At one point a gentleman with a guitar directly addresses the camera crew and asks if he might sing a round of the Ukrainian National Hymn—a song, significantly, repeated at various junctures throughout the film. The crew agree and so he begins and is quickly joined by several bystanders in full patriotic voice. It is great to have a ‘feature scene’ like this presented in the context of a longer take capturing seemingly aimless standing about both before and after the moment. Another point of interest the documentary presents to us the highly poetic nature of Eastern European cultures. All the big rally segments are filled with as much fresh topical poetry as they are with emphatically intoned polemic (one memorable poem evocative of the rhythmic speech movement of Pasternak).
Loznitsa challenges us to observe the hard facts of a resistance movement—discomfort and boredom interspersed with moments of transcendent community and harrowing violence—by imbuing these qualities into the viewing experience. Consequently Maïdan is hard work and yet utterly engrossing as it clearly spells out the commitment necessary to produce significant societal change, and all without the need for any emotionally stirring narrated commentary.