'Maidan': Cannes Review

Courtesy of Festival de Cannes
This stunning, epic-scaled film harkens back to the heroic, journalistic roots of documentary-making and yet feels ineffably modern and formally daring. 

Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s third film to appear at Cannes topically covers the recent uprising that started in Kiev's central square and eventually ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.

Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan harkens back to the heroic, journalistic roots of documentary-making and yet feels ineffably modern and formally daring. It’s a tiny marvel of a movie that records a miraculous moment in his nation’s history. Comprised of footage shot over months from December 2013 to February 2014 in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (aka Independence Square) which was the ground zero for the revolution that eventually blew Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych out of the country, it serves as both an unvarnished record of what happened and a stylized, almost abstract meditation on crowds, movement and noise.

An audacious yet utterly logical synthesis of concerns and themes that have preoccupied Loznitsa in both his docs and features throughout his career, it may be the best movie so far from the Ukraine’s most talented working filmmaker. Although the subject couldn’t be more topical, Maidan’s stringent style will restrict it to raising the nation’s bi-color flag on the specialist and festival circuit, and upscale TV channels thereafter.

Disdaining the use of voiceover narration or anchoring focus on any particular person or group, Maidan’s MO of long, static takes almost feels like unedited found footage for an old newsreel or a Mass Observation documentary, except shot digitally with the latest wide angle lenses, and in glorious corrected color. There are rich resonances throughout with Loznitsa’s Blockade (2006), his collage film that compiled archive material showing the siege of Leningrad during WWII to which the director layered on top a non-source soundtrack of foley noise and murmuring. Still, throughout Maidan, chunks of explanatory text (in English) on a black screen periodically provide the datelines and subheadings necessary to understand the basics of what’s seen onscreen.

In the first part, shot in December 2013, it’s obvious a sort of carnival atmosphere reigns in the square as shots unfurl scenes of people listening to opposition spokespeople and amateur poets onstage, eating food supplied and distributed by an army of volunteers, tending to the sick at makeshift medical stations, and frequently singing. There are possibly enough renditions of the Ukrainian national anthem heard here that viewers with sharp memories may find they’ve memorized it by the end. Indeed, less patient audiences may lack the endurance for Loznitsa’s austere aesthetic, which favors planting the camera (operated by the director himself as well as Serhiy Stefan Stetsenko and Mykhailo Yelchev) in a choice spot and just watching people walk by. (His documentary Landscape was all shot like this, while these signature crowd studies also featured in his two fiction films, My Joy and In the Fog, which incidentally also tackled corrupt regimes and war.) One hopes, with a “cast” of thousands like this, no hapless production assistant was compelled to get signatures on countless release waivers from everyone who wandered into view.

Unsurprisingly, things heat up after the government passes the Anti-Protest Laws in January 2014, and running battles break out between the protestors and the military police. The violence escalates exponentially, and before long it’s not just broken paving stones and tear gas being thrown. Guns are turned on the crowd and as history records, over one hundred people died, another hundred or so went mysteriously missing and many more were injured. Loznitsa and his colleagues’ stand steadfast in every sense, the cameras fixed throughout except for a couple of occasions, for instance when the police aim their attack at the journalists’ enclosure.

Balancing this thick-of-it immediacy, there are also some stunningly composed high long-distance shots, presumably captured from the tower blocks surrounding the square, that suggest 18th-century battlefield paintings, showing tiny troops dwarfed in a panoramic landscape, the composition adorned by fireworks or a serene moon hanging pendant above. But these moments of beauty never trivialize the bloodshed and tragedy of the events recorded here; instead they enhance the poignancy of the film, creating both a literal and metaphoric sense of distance that underscores that this was history in the making. If the communards in Paris in 1871 had owned top-grade digital cameras, they would have made a movie much like Maidan.

Production company: Atom & Void

Director: Sergei Loznitsa

Screenwriter: Sergei Loznitsa

Producer: Sergei Loznitsa, Maria Choustova-Baker

Cinematographers: Serhiy Stefan Stetsenko, Sergei Loznitsa, Mykhailo Yelchev

Editor: Loznitsa, Danielius Kokanauskis

Sound designer: Vladimir Golovnitski

Sales: Atom & Void

No rating, 134 minutes

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