ESSAY: Standing in the crowd: Objectivity in Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan

Maidan still frame

A phone rings and an unseen voice speaks: We’re still fighting, we’re in the Maidan.

This is one of the few pieces of dialogue in Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary film titled Maidan. The film is a sociological study of mass protest, as much as it is a documentary of the 90 day protest in Kiev’s Independence square.

In November 2013, the then president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych rejected an EU association agreement in favour of a financial loan from Russia which forged closer ties with the country. As a direct reaction from the deal, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest. Film maker Loznitsa, who grew up in Kiev, abandoned all projects to return.

Through Maidan, Loznitsa has attempted one of the most objective documentaries of contemporary political history. He uses long shots which play on for a few minutes at a time and a gradual shifting from stark daylight to smoky darkness and back again to show the passage of time. The film attempts to simulate the duration of revolution through showing the lulls as well as the peaks of history in the making. The protestors covered unchartered and unknown ground each day they remained at the Maidan, even Loznitsa had no idea how this story would end.

Loznitsa consciously limits his control over narrative by using a stationary camera for all frames except one. He allows the scenes to unfold as if the crowd are under a high resolution surveillance. A man with a guitar, bobbing on the slow current of the crowd, moves to the centre of the frame to spontaneously perform the Ukrainian national anthem. A woman ladles steaming liquid into plastic cups and vats of soup are stirred with a long wooden paddles. A loudspeaker blares poetry and motivational speeches from a stage, and the catchy internet sensation song, Vitya Ciao (Viktor Bye) pumps out. Yet because of the wide and incidental framing, there is always a disruption to the romanticism of the mass movement. Amongst the euphoria, the bulk of a person shudders from a cough beneath a patterned blanket.

This style of documentation could be seen as passive, specially in comparison to Loznitsa’s My Joy (2010) which used dark humour to parody the backward nature of rural Russia. Corrupt policemen, mad soldiers and child prostitutes roam the countryside, where roads lead no where and the protagonists fate is never resolved. This angle could be seen as more politically live in its fiction and was even labelled Russophobic by some critics. Indeed, The Interview (2014) directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg set to be released in the UK in February 2015, made greater political waves. The comical parody of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sparked an internet duel after Sony was hacked by a group who were believed to be linked to North Korea, North Korean internet connection was subsequently shut down for a period of time and the film was then released on YouTube after terrorists threatened to attack cinemas screening the film. With Oliver Stone working on a film about Putin and Nicholas Cage working on a film about Osama Bin Laden, how will fiction, politics and documentary become delineated into offensive and non-offensive? It is in this sense that Maidan is successful, it is part of an extreme school where pure footage speaks and only history is used to prove a point.

A loudspeaker announces civil activist training at seven, and as dusk falls, the crowd gains a sense of direction

While Loznitsa omits his own voice, the film shows his clear understanding of the Ukranian spirit and the Slavic tradition of organised revolution approached as a necessity for civil liberty. When public assembly was banned at the Maidan by the government 10 December 2013, small changes in the crowd begin to be recognised. A woman wearing a pretty scarf walks past wearing a cycle helmet, more helmets start to appear. Hard hats, motorbike helmets, then balaclavas, but everyone is still calm, it’s a very matter of fact build up, as if action was inevitable. A loudspeaker announces civil activist training at seven, and as dusk falls, the crowd gains a sense of direction. Later on we see sand bags being packed, makeshift stretchers carried, comrades instructed to certain areas of the city.

Maidan film still

The viewer is updated on the progress of the protest through white text on a black background, which informs us of dates and developments. Consequently, Loznitsa eliminates his own voice. In the documentary about Edward Snowden, Citizen4 (2014), by Laura Poitras, her voice is the first thing we hear. It is strong, recognisable and personal. We also see her hand, feel her presence, a faint reflection, a single long dark hair amongst torn papers in the final scene. She is very present, because the story is as much about her as it is about her subject. Poitras was subjected to NSA surveillance processes, being stopped at airports since her first film was released. Loznitsa uses historical fact to signpost events in his film, she uses email correspondence between herself and Snowden. While Poitras was never going to make a documentary showing a balanced argument on NSA surveillance, she uses conference footage and interviews to convince the audience of her angle. While the events of Maidan were clearly personal to Loznitsa, he is always a bystander.

The scenes of the battle that ensue between riot police and protestors towards the end of the film are abrasive. Only once does the camera move, as it is picked up in a quick retreat, the only time we can sense that there is somebody behind it. The next frame looks down from the top of a building, stationary again. His only angle is his choice of on which side of the barricade he stands, arguably a powerful one that separates his film from objectivity. While objectivity can never be completely achieved, in comparison, Harun Farocki’s Videograms of a Revolution (1992) shows a closer attempt. The film is a compilation of footage of the 1989 Romanian revolution taken from multiple angles of CCTV, news footage and home videos with a voice over explaining the angle of each shot. This in turn took inspiration from Sergei Eisenstein’s Oktyabr (1927), a re-enactment of the 1917 Russian revolution, a film that has been credited for its meticulous detail of historical fact, albeit a piece of propaganda. Loznitsa treads this cinematic path, but his work is a product of its time. Today where camera phones are capturing political events from the street at every angle, it will be interesting to see how documentary film makers will be able to capture contemporary history to an even further extent of objectivity.

Maidan film still

Loznitsa has an angle, but in Maidan, the proximity to objectivity is one of it’s most powerful tools. Far from disarming the film, the technique politicises the documentary further. Fact is undiluted with opinion and narrative is distilled. Loznitsa’s subjectivity is also used as a tool, but only to take his initial stand point in the crowd and to extend the footage of the Maidan sociologically and philosophically describing the nature of Slavic mass protest as a folk warfare reliant on organisation, perseverance and stamina, as well as passion, unity and force.

On 21 February 2014 Yanukovych fled from Kiev. Vitya, Vitya, Vitya, Ciao.

The Ukrainians continue their battle.

Maidan film still

Maidan (2014)
Director: Sergei Loznitsa
Ukraine, Netherlands
131 minutes
In UK cinemas 20 February
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