An exercise in filmmaking that's as much a home-movie for the people of Ukraine as it is a documentary.
It wasn’t that long ago that Ukraine was an obscure Eastern European country most people only heard about during the Winter Olympics. In the mid-oughts, Ukraine made the news for its “Orange Revolution,” a grass-roots political movement fueled by opposition to a corrupt presidential election. Recently, though, Ukraine has made headlines – dire headlines, sadly – as the focal point of a military conflict with Russia (including a battle for control of Crimea). Headlines don’t always tell the whole story, however, nor can they tell the story of what led to the headline.
The best way to define “Maidan” (the movement) is to quote the title card that appears early in the film:
“The Story of Maidan began in November 2013. [Ukrainian] President Yanukovich refused to sign an Association Agreement with Europe. Hundreds of thousands of citizens from all over Ukraine protested in Kiev’s Independence Square. They occupied the square and set up Maidan.”
The story continues into February 2014, and over those few short, cold months, the conflict between protestors and police escalates to acts of violence that result in the injury and death of hundreds of people.
As for Maidan (the film), it is an exercise in documentary filmmaking that is equal parts mystifying and maddening. Director Sergey Loznitsa, in a bold artistic move, uses his lens as something of an “ultimate observer.” The camera is placed in one spot and whatever happens within that frame is what is presented in the film. Loznitsa doesn’t pan the camera, he doesn’t alter or adjust to wide or tight shots, and he doesn’t add any visual effects (other than occasional fade-outs). With two brief exceptions*, the camera never moves. This presents a unique viewing experience on a pair of fronts.
First, every shot is like a living diorama. The rectangle is there, and it is full and fluid, and the camera holds long enough to give the viewer ample time to take in every rich detail. (And rich those details are, thanks to gorgeous cinematography from Loznitsa and Serhiy Stetsenko.) In most cases, the people within the frame are oblivious (or indifferent) to the camera, so there is no silly behavior to suffer.
Second, the artistic choice gives the viewer an incredible sense of connection with the film. Contributing to this is Loznitsa’s camera placement choices. Much of the film is spent on the periphery of the action, but with the sounds of that action still very much audible. This allows the viewer to observe little things like protestors camping in the streets, kitchen volunteers preparing food, journalists facing acts of danger, and even the faces of mourners during a funeral ceremony, all while hearing the key speeches and events happening at the heart of the protest. It would have been easy for Loznitsa to go for “the shot” – that moment Pulitzer-hopeful photojournalists crave – but in resisting temptation, abandoning tradition, and opening his lens to the lesser-known moments, the director offers a behind-the-scenes look of a protest that news outlets might never show.
Yet for all the wonder Loznitsa’s artistic bravado offers, it brings with it a fatal flaw: there is no narrative. Being the ultimate observer means not enjoying the benefit of context. There is no pre-November 2013 history offered. There are no voiceovers to explain what is onscreen or its significance (if any). There is no documented timeline other than what is mentioned in those five title cards. There are no facts, stats, pie charts, or bar graphs. The only subtitles available are for speeches, rally songs, and the occasional comment heard in-frame (or just off). The experience is akin to being alone in a foreign land without the benefit of a guide. The film is as much a home movie for the people of Ukraine as it is a documentary.
What can be gleaned from this fascinating and frustrating film is a two-act tale starring a nation of people not truly ready to challenge their government. In the first act, the people rally but with no great energy. They are organized, yet without drive. They chant and sing, but almost obligatorily. Everyone seems to like the idea of the movement more than the movement itself. Perhaps the fatigue of struggling to be an independent nation in a post-Soviet world has taken its national toll.
The second act highlights the people’s David, wielding stones and bricks and the occasional molotov cocktail, fighting the governmental Goliath, with its guns and tear gas and body armor. Remove that, though, and the second act is much like the first: duty trumping passion. The film’s end – a final title card – is a factual statement that leaves the results of the movement completely unexplained.
*(A brief note about those two exceptions when the camera moves. One move is for safety purposes as authorities include journalists within the scope of their violent retaliatory tactics; in this move, the camera is physically relocated. The other move seems almost instinctive, as a still camera suddenly pans right to capture police firing guns at protestors. Loznitsa’s decision to include these two moves, even though they bely his artistic approach, suggests his support for the protestors, as both instances put authorities in very bad light.)
Anyone expecting anything close to a traditional documentary might struggle connecting with Maidan. That said, the stylistic daring of the film’s structure makes the film-watching experience one that is very much worth the 130-minute time investment.