Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s latest documentary, The Event (Sobytie), investigates a world-changing episode in history that’ll soon celebrate its 25th anniversary: the failed 1991 coup d’etat that would finally lead to the dissolution of the USSR. Exclusively using black-and-white archive footage from the Saint Petersburg Documentary Film Studio, which was shot over the course of those few days of grand confusion, the film manages to illustrate the hopes, fears and anger of a people living through the last days and hours of the USSR while also suggesting something about the cyclical nature of history in general and Russian history in particular. That said, audiences coming to the film without at least some basic knowledge of the events portrayed will find the narrative not all that easy to follow, limiting its potential audience to festivals and high-end TV.
Though perhaps better known for his two fiction features, the Cannes-selected My Joy and In the Fog, Loznitsa is arguably the most famous documentary director from the former Eastern Bloc. Thankfully, he hasn’t abandoned the documentary genre but now seems to work on projects in both arenas. His 2014 documentary Maidan looked at the recent turmoil in Ukraine, the adopted home country of the director born in Belarus (then part of the USSR). For his latest, the filmmaker returns to crafting a story from Soviet archive footage in stark black-and-white, much like his landmark 2006 feature, Blockade. And like that film, the footage centers on Russia’s second city, Saint Petersburg (Leningrad in 1991).
A state of emergency was declared on Aug. 19, 1991, while Soviet President Gorbachev was on holiday, by a group of high-placed politicians calling themselves the General Committee on the State Emergency (the group included the vice president, the premier, the head of the KGB and the Minister of Defense). Essentially a coup, the group put Gorbachev under house arrest so he wouldn’t be able to sign a treaty, planned for Aug. 20, that would take away a lot of Moscow’s centralized power and would give it to the various states that made up the Union. This background knowledge is essential but Loznitsa prefers to show how the common people in the streets were left without information, uncertain about what was really going on at the highest echelons of power.
The majority of footage was shot outdoors, in the streets of Saint Petersburg, where people started gathering, often glued to their transistor radios, hoping, often in vain, to get any news. (What’s not clear from the footage shown here is that access to foreign media, reporting on the goings-on, was not cut off, so this is how many people, including Gorbachev, managed to stay more or less updated on what was going on.) People are seen improvising blockades in the streets, using benches and old vehicles rolled onto their sides, because a curfew and the presence of tanks in Moscow had people thinking a violent military intervention might be imminent. Especially toward the end of the Committee’s three-day reign, various figures, including Leningrad mayor Anatoly Sobchak, addressed the crowds.
Most people gathered in the squares near government buildings, waiting for a sign of action or the release of any nugget of information. At times, someone appears with a pile of pamphlets with an official update, with copies being fought over like bread in a starving nation (incidentally, some people are overheard complaining about the lack of bread as well, as the country seems to be coming to a complete standstill). Though it perhaps wasn’t entirely clear to the populace that the Committee had suspended all political activity, it was clear something was brewing because most media were affected too. Instead of news, television stations repeatedly broadcast a Bolshoi Ballet performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, with Loznitsa using the ballet’s music, performed by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, in lieu of a score each time he fades to black between segments.
In the streets, there’s much speculation about what might be going on. Some people murmur that Gorbachev might be dead, while an anonymous voice says during what sounds like a radio broadcast that his reforms have failed. “Let’s return to private property,” someone else suggests, while yet another voice prefers hollow slogans like “a free nation is a happy nation.” It’s never clear what the source of each audio fragment is, so the audio also sends mixed signals that recreate the confusion and cacophony of voices — some more informed, others more propagandistic — of the time. The anxious faces in the crowds, with their eyes trained on a sheet of paper that might indicate something about the future of their nation, are telling. Most people seem to be both hopeful and terrified, not sure what is going on, fearing the worst but also clearly eager for change.
The film’s press book uses the phrase “Three Days That Shook the World,” a variation on John Reed’s classic nonfiction book about the 1917 October revolution, but Loznitsa is clearly interested not only in these specific 72 hours but also how this historical turning point relates to the grander sweep of history. It is logical that the moment in which the Soviets in Leningrad/Saint Petersburg became Russians again — as illustrated by the replacement of the Soviet flag by the Russian tricolor during an official ceremony — immediately recalls the Russian revolution that ended the epoch of the Czars and ushered in the Communist era. There is a clear sense that this political mutation of sorts is the latest in a long line that extends into the past but also, crucially, into the future.
Indeed, the power struggles that are happening behind the scenes also resonate with the present. Now-president Vladimir Putin, who had just started working for the Saint Petersburg administration in 1991 after years in the KGB, is briefly glimpsed here for example. It’s not just a random shot but the sight of Putin leaving a government building and getting into a car that’s then followed by another that features wailing sirens. As elsewhere, Loznitsa provides no direct context or background information (and perhaps the shot is the only one that has survived). But the image is clearly loaded. The idea that Putin (or the KGB) might have something to do with what’s happening would be a possible interpretation, just like the idea that he’s a (future?) criminal followed by a police car. What remains, today as 25 years ago, is that the common people, captured here seemingly without filter, are powerless and to a large extent clueless about what happens at the top levels of government.
Production companies: Atoms & Void, Cinematek
Director: Sergei Loznitsa
Producers: Sergei Loznitsa, Maria Choustova-Baker
Executive producer: Nicola Mazzanti
Cinematography: Dmitry Siduriv
Editors: Sergei Loznitsa, Danielius Kokanauskis
Sales: Atoms & Void
No rating, 74 minutes