Maidan – Film Review

Violent, challenging and essential doc on the protests that sparked revolution in Ukraime

Maidan, the latest film from documentary maker Sergei Loznitsa, is by turns inspiring and depressing, clear-headed and confusing – but then so were the months of protest in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, that began in November 2013. When former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych backtracked on an election promise to join the European Union, protesters occupied the square. They used the hashtag #Euromaidan, and it became a byword for a wave of civil unrest. Yanukovych fled the country in February last year, by which time more than 100 people had died.

With fellow cameramen Serhiy Stefan Stetsenko and Mykhailo Yelchev, Loznitsa was in the square from the beginning. He captured the sights, sounds and atmosphere in a series of daring static shots that don’t so much tell the story of the protests as unflinchingly expose their beating heart.

The first 40 minutes feel like watching CCTV footage from an unusually large village fête. The camera studies the volunteers making sandwiches at long tables, or unloading firewood from a van. Earnest poets read pieces about democracy, justice and freedom written especially for the protests, and children sing Christmas carols.

When police are sent in to forcibly clear the square, bricks and petrol bombs begin raining down on them. The filmmakers carry on as before: standing stock-still, patiently recording the chaos. There are two exceptions. The first comes when one of the cameramen audibly retches as a tear-gas projectile lands nearby. He briefly staggers around in a daze, but within seconds the picture is static again. The other is a pan and zoom as police level rifles and open fire on protestors in broad daylight. The effect is mesmerising, as if the camera itself does a double-take, astonished at what it’s seeing.

Amid the horror there are flashes of beauty: figures silhouetted against burning barricades; a woman walking through the riot with an elaborate garland of flowers in her hair. The consistency of the camerawork draws the eye to details in the crowd. There’s the person who puts a hand over their heart instead of removing their hat while singing the national anthem. Later, a woman in a headscarf brandishes a small piece of paper, like a referee sending a player off. It’s a gesture of hopeless defiance: in front of her, massed ranks of riot police form a wall with their shields, preparing for a charge.

There is no pretence at balance, nor are we told how to interpret what is shown. Instead, Loznitsa places the viewer inside a revolution, showing history in its rawest state. It is disquieting, challenging but vitally important viewing.