A New Documentary Film Charts the Rise of Ukraine's Maidan Protests

I was asked to review Sergei Loznitsa's new documentary record of the Ukraine protest movement Maïdan for Radio 4's Front Row programme this month. It's a timely film. Russia's black propaganda efforts since Maidan have been unrelenting...

A year on from the massacre of Maidan protestors by president Viktor Yanukovich's berkut officers, there's a very real danger of the Maidan protests becoming lost from view.

I was asked to review Sergei Loznitsa's new documentary record of the Ukraine protest movement Maïdan for Radio 4's Front Row programme this month. (You can listen to the conversation with presenter Samira Ahmed, here.)

It's a timely film. Russia's black propaganda efforts since Maidan have been unrelenting - from official attempts to label the protestors 'Nazis' and their leaders in Kiev a 'junta' to the flooding of commetary with trolls and masking of their own forces as 'separatists', protesting in turn. So any document of Maidan that takes us back to first principles - that bears witness, rather than imposing a retrospective interpretation - is welcome.

In a lot of ways, Maïdan is that document. It's as much a video installation piece as a film: ambient, inclusive. The cameras are simply installed, and left to run, picking up the crowd, in parts and whole. There is no narrator. For long stretches, it feels like those long, live-broadcast hours from the Big Brother house. There's a screen between you, but there might as well not be. Life is being lived, sandwiches eaten, tea drunk on both sides of the glass. Faces in the crowd peer out at points just past your shoulder. No easy hooks, personal stories, heroes. No leading men or ladies. Just the crowd.

We don't know them. We don't follow them as individuals. There are no emblematic stories. It's as if to say that emblematic stories have caused enough problems already. As a voice cries over the PA when imploring the crowd to remain calm even as the violence begins: "Emotion is your enemy."

Maïdan's insistence on not entering the arms race of over-narration and assertion and theorising all sides have been sucked into around Ukraine really does feel like the only sane thing to do. That act of asking us to look and see what's happening, and getting out of the way, is its masterstroke.

Maïdan is far from being Hollywood-style commercial dynamite. It feels, at times, like we're seeing cinema stretching itself again, in ways that will have value in decades to come, like The Battle Of Algiers or even Eisenstein.

Of course, those are hardly examples of POV-free filmmaking. Which is, I guess, the twist. Loznitsa shot more than a hundred hours of footage. We get two. Maybe Maidan does have more in common with narrated or polemical collages like Adam Curtis's Bitter Lake after all.

The longer it goes on, the more snatches of PA appeals for doctors, crowd chants, half-conversations-in-passing, painted slogans, odd shouts and pop songs you hear, the more that circus of voices becomes the chorus, the narrator. It even feels at times like those great Robert Altman films, M.A.S.H. (tannoy announcements), Nashville (overheard snatches of radio), Short Cuts (TV news bulletins).

If it's a composition of broken voices in an hour of chaos, maybe it's our, or Ukraine's, version of T.S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land'. A recitation of fragments, shored against its ruin.

But even the filmmaker is more present than he first appears, it's a film that leaves you alone for long periods, including extraordinarily long static shots.

While the camera is trained on the square or the refectory like a CCTV or weathercam, there's no-one telling you what to think. The anthem swells and disappears. People read demands to Putin. People talk about what Putin's said back. People make and eat sandwiches. Mill about. Someone strums a guitar. There are moments when it feels closer to the infamous, unreleasable outtake-as-feature footage that made up Robert Franks' Rolling Stones doc C*cksucker Blues, or Bob Dylan's abandoned '66 tour chronicle Eat The Document than anything else.

Aimlessness as purpose. Chaos as direction. Crowd as motivational force.

Key events are happening are out of sight. You hear that they've happened, or may be about to happen, elsewhere. It's like those long, fixed-camera hours broadcast live from the Big Brother house, or Andy Warhol films. You start getting itchy feet, thinking 'When is something going to happen? Why all the waiting around in one place, camera?' And of course that's very much the start of any movement, if I recall my Iraq Demo, Occupy and Poll Tax Protest days right. It's film as immersion, not spectacle.

And maybe, after all, the fact that there's no-one telling you what to think is the point about revolutions, and about Maïdan. It feels messy. It's bewildering. And it might only make sense later, when it's slipping away again.


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