As we near the conclusion of the film world’s self-assessment of 2014, one that will end in earnest, though far from authoritatively, with the Academy Awards® in late February, the real work for most serious film-goers is only just beginning: to catch up on that small but significant share of new and newly available older cinema that really mattered in 2014; to view those films, from wherever or whomever they may come, that possess the capacity to expand the spectator’s sense of what cinema is, has and can do and/or expand one’s knowledge and understanding of the world – and the time – in which we live.
In a year of exceptional crisis in the Ukraine, one work, naturally excluded from any talk of Oscar (which as we know belongs more to the cultural power-brokers, both in and out of Hollywood, than to the artistic dissidents), fits a number of these qualitative criteria as much as any other, Sergei Loznitsa’s Maïdan (2014; screening Thurs., Jan. 8th at 7:30 p.m. and Fri., Jan. 9th at 8 p.m.). Filmed over the course of ninety days, Loznitsa’s (My Joy) epic documentary depicts Kiev’s now famous Euromaïdan protests, from the late November 2013 demonstrations against President Victor Yanoukovitch’s anti-Western regime, protests which were fueled by the popular perception of widespread governmental corruption, to the police’s use of live ammunition against the Ukrainian people this past February. Lonzitsa’s monumental 133-minute documentary is on the scene for all of this, capturing history, without explicit comment, as it unfolds. In a word, Loznitsa’s non-fiction opus was the most ‘present’ film of 2014.
If, on the surface, the exceedingly objective Maïdan appears to be relatively formless, an example of Weisman-esque non-fiction that eschews on-screen or voiced-over identifiers, it is a strategy in this instance that is employed to ideological ends: as a means of maintaining the mass’s primacy (above and beyond any one person or sets of persons in the demonstration). This elevation of the masses indeed proves generative of many of the filmmaker’s choices, from the film’s refusal to return to any one of the on-screen participants in the protests to the Loznitsa’s long-shot stagings, often filmed from above eye-level, which reveal the sheer scope of the demonstrations. Filmed nearly a century after the October Revolution, and in a place that would soon find itself in armed conflict with the Soviets’ political successors, Maïdan is truly collective, mass cinema.
It is also exemplary, quite ironically in fact, of the writings of French film theorist André Bazin*, who often has been read as the historical counterweight to Soviet montage theory, and therefore to the heroic age of Soviet silent cinema (or a period that again elevated the collective above the individual). In Bazin’s writings, it is the world revealed before the camera, the reality captured by the event of filming (within a real world) that is of primary significance, not what the linguistic or syntactic process of editing creates. For Bazin, as for Loznitsa in the early twenty-first century, the cinema is indexical, a visible, objective trace of a moment in time, of the world that was. Yet, it is also a work which is, at its aesthetic core, anti-journalistic: lacking the hand-held camera work in particular that marks direct, vérité practice, Loznitsa opts instead for gracefully composed long-shots, filmed against convention or at least cliche, with use of a static tripod. Though in one sense this is a film all about the Euromaidan protests, it is in another just as interested in the visual dynamics and properties of its human masses, of the crowd’s rhythms and visual textures that reveal themselves over time. As formless as Maïdan appears in one sense, it truly is an aestheticized document of a living history in other.
Maïdan is also, finally, a work of information and access, a film that brings one behind the barricades to showcase what life is really like in Euromaidan’s ersatz society. Coming at the tail end of a half-decade dominated by protests on the left and right alike, Loznitsa’s triumphant return to feature-length documentary, after two major achievements in fiction, 2010’s My Joy and 2012’s In the Fog, may just prove to be the key expression of one of our age’s more defining activities, for better or for worse.
Note [*]: Credit is due to the Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson for noting Maïdan’s provocative and profound connection to the writings of Bazin.