If you’ve read a newspaper, browsed the internet or watched television in the last twelve months, it’s unlikely you’ll have failed to hear the dreadful news emanating from Ukraine. The civil war that broke out in the east there, following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsular in March last year, has claimed over 5000 lives and left over 1.5 million displaced. And those numbers keep rising.
With the divisions harrowing the country so prominent in recent events, it’s easy to forget that the current crisis began in a display of great unity: the Euromaidan protests that ran from November 2013 until the eventual toppling of President Viktor Yanukovych’s regime in February 2014. The Euromaidan movement (named for its pro-European founders and Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Eng.: Independence Square, where the main protests took place) began on 21st November as a relatively small demonstration against President Yanukovich’s refusal to sign the anticipated Ukraine-EU Association Agreement at an international summit in Vilnius. Heavy-handed tactics by the authorities to disperse the crowd angered a number of moderate Ukrainians, and a large-scale popular movement was born, with up to 800,000 taking to the streets of Kiev on 1st December.
With protesters out in the capital well into the new year, and clashes with police becoming more and more heated, the Yanukovich government took increasingly drastic steps, at first implementing draconian anti-protest laws to force demonstrators off the streets. When this only encouraged more people to join the movement, police began to up their level of force. This reached a climax between 18th and 20th February when they began systematically to fire live ammunition at demonstrators. When even these tactics failed to give the authorities the upper hand, the government tried to enlist the support of the army and security services.
As leading military personnel began to resign in protest at the government’s response to the situation, Yanukovich realised his position had become untenable. On 22nd February he fled the country, leaving the leaders of the Euromaidan movement and existing politicians to form a new government and arrange new elections. Overall over 100 protesters had been killed and well over 1000 injured. Yet the revolutionaries had little time to mourn their dead or celebrate their success: separatist paramilitaries occupied the Crimean parliament building on the 27th February, as instability in the east of the country continued to grow. The current Ukrainian crisis was already underway.
It’s important to understand this context before watching Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary Maidan, shot at the heart of the action in Kiev in those eventful winter months, because the film itself explains very little. Opening with a wide shot of protesters en masse singing the national anthem (the first of many recitals of said anthem over the course of the film – this reviewer almost knew it by heart at the end), the film is made up almost entirely of long shots of the square and the hives of activity surrounding it, the only speech coming from podium-speakers and odd snatches of overheard conversation. This is only very occasionally interspersed with short blocks of text giving the basic timeline of key events.
The first part of the film, documenting the initial protests of November and December 2013, shows a Kiev in the grip of an optimistic, carnival atmosphere. People walk through streets and public buildings festooned with home-made placards and posters, talk excitedly and gather in groups that spontaneously break out into song. When the camera shifts to the square itself, we see, alongside grandstanding political speeches, people reciting poetry, priests giving mass and a school choir singing Christmas carols. Much screen-time is given over to the many impromptu canteens and soup kitchens, as well as the improvised dormitories and camps that were set up to provide sustenance and shelter, emphasising the importance of such backstage efforts in keeping the revolution alive.
Unsurprisingly, the atmosphere becomes more tense as attention shifts to fiery clashes between police and protesters. But even as the film approaches its climax, there are still surreal and incongruous moments retaining something of the earlier joie de vivre: a jolly Santa hat bobbing through the crowd, a bagpipe player tooting away as he strolls along, a frail old lady defiantly holding up a small icon in the face of a police blockade before being escorted off-screen by a concerned medic.
The long duration of the shots and lack of camera movement means that the viewers are able to immerse themselves in the action, turning their attention to whatever small details stand out: trays laden with cups of tea, a Portuguese flag, the garish floral pattern of a man’s jacket. Despite the camera’s proximity to the action, its presence never seems to affect the people it’s filming, giving viewers the impression they’re first-hand witnesses to events. In fact, it remains so unobtrusive throughout that when later in the film the cameraman is forced to pick it up and flee his position as tear gas shells rain down around him, it comes as something of a shock.
There are moving scenes towards the end of the film as we see the funeral procession for a number of demonstrators killed in skirmishes with the police. As thousands of voices join together in song and cries of “heroyam slava” (“glory to the heroes”) echo around the square, we see thousands of people holding their mobile phones aloft, creating the impression of a candle-lit vigil. These arresting images drive home what the film makes abundantly clear: contrary to strident opinions from the Kremlin that Euromaidan was the work of a few western provocateurs, the revolution was indeed a popular movement led by ordinary Ukrainians.
The frustrating thing about Maidan, though, is that its greatest strengths may also be its weaknesses. The long takes and absence of narrative interruption allow viewers great freedom to take in the wealth of detail on offer – but they also hinder an appreciation of the much bigger picture that envelops the 2014 revolution – and the civil war that’s followed. And while the minimalist editing of the film and the pains taken to show every aspect of the incredible organisation behind the protests is undoubtedly effective, at 134 minutes the film will test the endurance of many of its viewers. Much of what made the final cut could perhaps have been omitted for the sake of brevity.
Overall, Maidan will not do much to satisfy those viewers who approach it hoping to better their understanding of the 2014 revolution, of contemporary Ukrainian politics or the conflict currently tearing the country apart. But it will more than satiate those with a desire to know what it was like to witness the tumultuous events in Kiev first-hand, or to experience the chaos of a popular revolution in full swing.
Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan is showing at the BFI Southbank until 5th March.