In his two fiction features, My Joy and In the Fog, Belarusian director Sergei Loznitsa has explored issues of morality and fatalism within the large context of Russian society, both contemporary and past, framed as an inexorable struggle for survival in a lawless place seemingly bereft of any proper moral compass. Maidan is a return to the documentary form he cut his teeth in, following a moment in time where "the people" rose against that absence of morality and attempted to chart a new course into quieter waters: the Kiev protests of November 2013 to February 2014 that led to the fall of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich and plunged the country into a tense stand-off with neighbour Russia.
The film unfolds chronologically as the events take place, from the initial celebratory gatherings to the silent, heavy memorials for the protesters killed during the later stages in conflicts with the police. However, this being Mr. Loznitsa with his wayward, askew way of looking at things from unexpected angles, Maidan (the popular name of the Independence Square at the heart of the city and at the heart of the protests against Mr. Yanukovich's corrupt government) seems to be a free-form piece with little to no narrative throughline.
It's a deceptive appearance, suggested by the fact that Maidan sees everything as if through the eyes of a passing onlooker with little to no understanding of what's happening. Mr. Loznitsa and his cameraman Serhiy Stetsenko (who shot most of the footage after the director's affairs called him away from Kiev) set their static, long takes either in the middle of the crowds that visit the square everyday or from the top of nearby buildings or streets that give out on the square for context or geography.
What they seem to be mostly interested in is in placing the viewer in a "you-are-there" situation, showing that the Maidan events had as much of a county fair, an open-air carnival or an amateur talents show as of an entire people rising up to defend the soul of their country and demonstrate how fed up they were with the state of things. As such, Maidan is - as usually for Mr. Loznitsa's documentary work - mostly created in the editing, in the patient juxtaposition in the cutting room of footage that has been filmed equally patiently.
The effect thus created is that of an almost imperceptible slide into an explosion of displeasure and violence, as the heavy-handedness of the government's armed response to a protest begun peacefully accelerated the events. In its urgent, deliberate recording for posterity of the Maidan daily events, Maidan has something of Sylvain George's constantly metamorphosing, activist works in progress, only filtered through Mr. Loznitsa's formalist sensibility and an approach that is less openly activist but assumes that everything is and can be political.
Therefore, this is really not a traditional narrative documentary as much as it is a document made in real time and finished "in the spur of the moment". The relevance of its subject and the form make up for excessive, sprawling length and an occasional sense of redundancy and repetition; they don't excuse it, but absorb it into the very fabric of the piece. And while Maidan is nobody's idea of a masterpiece, it is a vital document to see into, and better understand, the world we live in, showing cinema has not yet lost its power to record history as it is made.
Director Sergei Loznitsa; camera Mr. Loznitsa, Serhiy Stefan Stetsenko and Mykhailo Yelchev; editors Danielius Kokanauskis and Mr. Loznitsa; producers Mr. Loznitsa and Maria Choustova-Baker; production company Atoms & Void
Screened October 28th 2014, Ideal, Lisbon (distributor press screening)