Sergei Loznitsa’s latest film, Maidan, falls firmly in the tradition of documentaries that use the real to question the possibilities of cinema. Those expecting a more activist documentary like Jehane Noujaim’s The Square might come away dissatisfied with Maidan, but this shouldn’t stop filmgoers from experiencing what is ultimately one of the most honest depictions of popular protest ever filmed.
Following the events of the Ukrainian popular uprising of 2013, in which citizens occupied Maidan Square for several months to protest the Ukraine’s alliance with Russia rather than the EU, the film is primarily composed of wide shots and long takes. There is no main character in the film, and no close-ups of any one person, only long shots of crowds. This emphasizes that the popular struggle to collectively change Ukraine for the better is the film’s main character rather than any one individual. Seeing such massive crowds fighting for what they believe only highlights the fact that we can achieve much more together than alone.
These stylistic choices might be grating at first, and the first hour, which focuses on the peaceful aspects of the protest, will no doubt tire many. But that first hour is crucial for the film and for our understanding of the realities of social uprisings, as well as being a perfect counterpoint to the more violent, and exciting, second half.
It is also central to our understanding of protest in the way that it presents the unvarnished banality hidden behind the sensationalist newscasts. Loznitsa shows us people preparing food, making signs, and the minutiae involved in such a long protest, lingering on bad poets screaming their hearts’ contents to an apathetic crowd. This is one way in which the film stands as an achingly honest document of the Maidan protests: It doesn’t try to romanticize or demonize the event, but to document it in the most true to life fashion possible.
The second half of the film heats up considerably, following the violent altercations with police that characterized the last few months of the conflict. Loznitsa sticks to his tactic of long static shots of crowds to show the violent back and forth between protesters and police. The removed style doesn’t dull the impact of those scenes in the slightest, but lends the film a tense atmosphere and gives us the impression that we know more than the protesters who are stuck at ground level, emphasizing that we are powerless to help once the police start aggressively attacking the crowds.
Seeing masses of people mourning for those fallen in the conflicts at the end of the film is instantly moving, even without a main protagonist of this fight. Even if Loznitsa’s images start out having a distinctly “ant-farm” quality to them, they rapidly evolve to become stirring reminders of the force we can have as a people. Those inclined to follow this line of thought will find that Maidan subtly pushes the viewer to enact change in their community, to band together and ask for a better world. The film does this subtly and organically, never antagonizing us with in-your-face political statements.
Maidan is not without its problems. At over two hours, it runs the risk of boring many, even more so because of its strict adherence to static visuals and no main character. This is offset by a more exciting second half, but be advised: Maidan shares more DNA with experimental cinema than activist documentaries.
Montréal-based freelance writer Frédéric St-Hilaire explores issues of new media and representation in his academic work, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese cinema and all things K-pop.