Maidan – Documentary Film Review

By Emily Wight

About halfway through Maidan, a man climbs up the side of a disused bus with its windows smashed and seats wrenched off their hinges, and yells at the sea of riot police lined up behind it: “Are you people or animals?” None of them respond, but with explosions and chants roaring through the air, they may well not have heard.

If it were to have emerged from Syria or Iraq over the past few years, footage like this would be par for the course. But what is striking about this, and similar footage that was in the news this time last year, is that it’s closer to home, in Ukraine.

The scene comes bang in the middle of Sergei Loznitsa’s new documentary film Maidan, a two-hour portrayal of the unravelling of Kiev’s Independence Square uprising between December 2013 and February 2014. Loznitsa stops filming when Ukranian president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country on February 22. But it’s impossible to watch, one year on, this city centre unravel into a war zone, without keeping in mind the long-term upheaval the civil unrest has triggered, and its ramifications on a global scale.

Loznitsa, who was born in Belarus but grew up in Ukraine, has a strong background in documentary film, but is best known for his critically acclaimed feature films My Joy and In the Fog. I would be interested to watch his other documentary work. Maidan is not like any I’ve seen before: there is no protagonist or narrator; there are no interviews; nothing new is revealed.

Instead the square itself is the protagonist, starting out as a site of peaceful gatherings like Trafalgar Square in London or Times Square in New York, ending as a bloody battlefield full of molotov cocktails and grenades and sirens, in which more than one hundred people were killed, more than one hundred went missing and hundreds more were injured over the course of three months.

The approach is an interesting one, but it seems to only show the square as it is on three separate dates, in November, January and February. For the first hour of the film, there is not much action and no spoken account of what is going on. We see a five-minute-long shot of people lying in sleeping bags in a shelter while women dole out soup. Then, another three minute-long focus on a group of women, huddled together chanting.

This is how I summed it up to a friend: “Imagine visiting a photography exhibition of images from the protests, expecting powerful images of clashes – but most of the pictures were of people milling around”.

It’s difficult to focus attention, no matter how interested you are in the situation. Some of the group scenes, and the more turbulent episodes towards the end, lend themselves well to powerful cinematography, and the second half is doubtlessly more exciting. But there is too much standing around during the first half to grab the attention of anyone but the most die-hard documentary fans.

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