Watching dramas or comedies in the cities where they were shot is a fairly common experience. But it’s not often one views a film about a revolution just blocks from where the uprising happened.
That surreal situation has been playing out over the past week in this Eastern European capital, where less than six months after a series of bloody street protests toppled a pro-Russian leader, a new documentary about the event has elicited polarized reactions among the very people who lived it.
The film is at once an example of cinema’s desire, in this rapid-reaction age, to capture charged news events and an object lesson in how difficult that task really is.
“Maidan” chronicles the months-long protests that led to the fleeing of then-President Viktor Yanukovich, developments that soon dominoed into Russia’s annexation of Crimea and an ongoing war in the east between Ukraine and pro-Russian insurgents.
As the film explains, in November 2013, small student protests about Yanukovich’s reversal on a decision to sign a political agreement with the European Union quickly swelled into demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands in the city’s central Independence Square, known as the Maidan. Soon riot police descended, and peaceful demonstrations turned violent. The revolution, also dubbed the EuroMaidan, finally toppled Yanukovich in February, but not before exacting a lethal price.
Officially, 100 protesters were killed and more than a hundred went missing. But many say the numbers are much higher, and the events continue to hold an at once inspirational and tragic resonance here, particularly for the many young people who were in the line of bullets and police batons. Walk anywhere near the bustling square today and you’ll see candles, flowers and pictures of the dead everywhere, makeshift memorials amid the urban everyday.
Directed by the longtime Kiev resident and current Berlin expat Sergei Loznitsa (best known for the lauded and provocative 2010 road movie “My Joy”), “Maidan” seeks to capture the EuroMaidan in a very particular way. The film takes a studiously fly-on-the-wall approach, with cameras set up at various points in and around the square simply taking in what’s going on. There are no cutaways nor talking heads. There is no dialogue and few words in general, except for what’s already happening in the square (say, an activist giving a speech).
There are not, really, even any characters beyond the general masses of people whose intentions and meaning can be divined from the ambient snippets. The camera, operated by cinematographer Serhiy Stetsenko using a long lens and beautifully framed shots, simply observes the events as they unfold, beginning with passionate but genial protests that suggest a spirit of camaraderie before events turn dark when the Molotov cocktails and bullets fly.
On social media, the arguments over “Maidan” have been intense. Many say it doesn’t capture the experience from an on-the-ground perspective, while a smaller group applauds its willingness to detach from an event usually observed through a political lens. Underlying the debate is an age-old question: Do those who lived a particular history have a greater claim on recording it?
The film opened last week on nearly 50 screens, rare in Ukraine for any art-house movie, let alone a documentary. At one recent screening in central Kiev, one woman said she didn’t like that there was no one person to follow or much background information about the Maidan. A young man said that the film didn’t make you feel what it was like “to have bullets and tear gas coming at you because of something you believed in.”
Many of the viewers also, according to its distributor, have been young creatives who were not on the front lines, and the movie does not particularly focus on them.
Their comments were in line with others who — noting that Loznitsa was actually on the ground himself for only a few weeks in the relative calm of December 2013 — say the movie does not show enough context for the protests in the first place. Through such evenhandedness, they say, “Maidan” can even seem to draw an equivalency between the protesters and the police.
But its defenders, including the film’s distributor, say a lack of moral judgment is precisely the point.
“This is less a subjective view than an objective one, a zoom out and not a zoom in,” said Sasha Kravchenko, an executive at Arthouse Traffic, which released the movie. “It’s meant to be understood by the head, not the heart.”
As she sat in the company’s offices in a converted apartment building here, Kravchenko explained the ride the firm has been on since acquiring the film after its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May. (The movie is currently on a festival tour but does not have a distribution deal in the U.S.)
The distributor’s goal with the film, as she sees it, is to show what happened in the Ukrainian revolution without sentimentalizing those events; after all, there are enough news accounts and Facebook pages that do that.
“I think people want heroes, and this film doesn’t give them heroes,” she said. “They want heroes, but the Maidan only had victims.” (Incidentally, critics both in Ukraine and at Cannes have applauded the movie, particularly for its unsettling marriage of gorgeous cinematography with brutal violence.)
Dennis Ivanov, who runs Arthouse Traffic, said the distributor has been taken aback by the sharpness of the reaction.
“We underestimated the idea that people would have the expectations that they do,” he said. “I think a lot of moviegoers thought it would tell a story about how the Maidan happened. They expected a blockbuster in a way, a kind of action movie, and that’s not what the film is.”
Asked about his motivations, Loznitsa said he was not trying to give an on-the-ground version of events in the way, say, of “The Square,” the Egyptian Revolution documentary that earned plaudits and an Oscar nomination for its highly charged personal accounts.
“I wanted to show what happened in a way that was not passing judgment, that was just creating a tapestry,” Loznitsa said in an interview at Cannes.
It’s also hard to overstate the effect of time’s passage--or the lack thereof--in viewing a movie like this. Where cinema once would first begin processing history years or even decades after they happened, “Maidan” is an example of a big-screen account just months removed from the events, which can make nerves and thoughts very raw.
(For his part, Ivanov notes that a movie may come out much more quickly after news events, but that the news event themselves happen much more rapidly too. “On the one hand, the revolution can feel very recent since it happened just months ago, but at the same time so much has happened since then that it can feel blurry, which makes ‘Maidan’ a little like a time machine--it’s ‘look at this time that feels so long ago but really wasn’t,’” he said.)
The movie can have a transfixing quality no matter one’s opinion of its message. (It certainly has been a popular ticket, outdrawing “Farenheit 9/11" and “Blue Is the Warmest Color” in its opening weekend, according to its distributor.) Despite the film’s running time (130 minutes) and restrained pace, audience members here have stayed rooted in their seats. That is, except for the two times in the film when the Ukrainian national anthem is played — prompting the unusual sight of an entire movie theater, mid-screening, standing up in unison, placing their hands over their hearts and mouthing along.
Some Ukrainians, on the other hand, have said they won’t see the film and pointed to alternatives. Indeed, more intimate portrayals exist, such as a series of revolution vignettes by a filmmaking collective known as Babylon 13, which already have been gathered and shown on television. A work in progress titled “Pray for Ukraine” focuses on individual protesters with a religious bent; its Ukrainian American director, Evgeny Afineevsky, touted the project at a news conference here this week and said it would soon make the festival rounds.
As long as there are sensitivities about recent events, however, “Maidan” is likely to remain a flash point.
Kravchenko said that when the poster for the film, which show a crowd of discernible faces from the square, began appearing around the city, it prompted a flood of calls to the Arthouse Traffic offices.
“People started ringing up and saying they saw themselves in it,” she said. “These days even posters remind people of what they just lived through.”