In contrast with most documentaries made in the wake of an historic event, “Maidan” will last beyond the current Ukrainian upheaval to stand as compelling witness and a model response to a seminal moment too fresh to be fully processed. Going back to his nonfiction roots, Kiev-raised helmer Sergei Loznitsa uses almost exclusively fixed master shots filmed from December 2013 to February 2014, capturing in an emotionally gripping, minimalist way the protest’s trajectory from euphoric to besieged. Beyond the film’s immediacy, “Maidan” is an impressive, bold treatment of a complex subject via rigidly formalist means, and should see widespread fest rotation with possible limited Euro arthouse play.
Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, translating to Independence Square, has been the focal point of Ukraine’s revolution, with the word “maidan” becoming shorthand for the movement that toppled pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. The protests that began in December, following Yanukovych’s unpopular rejection of closer EU ties, began peacefully, as crowds in the square demonstrated their solidarity with patriotic songs, hyperbolic poems, speeches and the martial sentiments of the national anthem. Loznitsa and cameramen Serhiy Stefan Stetsenko and Mykhailo Yelchev stationed themselves in strategic spots just beyond the square’s periphery, capturing sounds from the stage but focusing on the quasi-festive atmosphere of regular people coming and going.
Protesters camp out in a school, volunteers ferry food and drink to the crowds, and a sense of commonality appears to link the participants, many of whom at this early stage are gray-haired men and women who must have marched in countless workers’ parades during Soviet times. Signaling the crowd’s refusal to budge are barricades of wooden pallets, spikes and detritus that make the area look like a lithograph of the July Revolution of 1830, although this was before the violence began. Instead, throngs sing new lyrics to the classic Italian partisan song “Bella ciao,” urging Yanukovych to go with the refrain “Ciao Vitya ciao.”
The atmosphere changes drastically after Jan. 19 and the introduction of repressive anti-protest laws. Suddenly announcements from the stage request that women leave the front lines, and gas masks appear. Skirmishes break out between demonstrators and cops, the former pelting police in almost balletic waves as they rhythmically run forward, toss rocks and fall back. It could almost be a staging of “Andrea Chenier.”
The one time the camera moves is when a press area is targeted by tear gas, and the previously static image suddenly veers off as the cameraman seeks safety in another section. Tensions escalate as a water cannon is introduced, and then live ammo. Loznitsa moves the perspective to an upper-floor vantage point, allowing him to take in smoke, flames and smoldering refuse from the day after. One month later an uneasy standoff crumbles when protesters march to Parliament: From an upper window, the camera records billowing black smoke in the distance while a woman at the lower right corner of the screen runs towards the unseen conflagration, her hair waving with each stride in one of many small details whose accumulation conveys a sense of dynamic urgency.
Shortly after, activists pry up cobblestones to use as projectiles; a grandmother type in a babushka harangues a younger woman, their voices drowned out by the general tumult. Someone blocks the view and the camera’s inflexibility is suddenly felt, yet there’s never the frustration of stymied involvement: Loznitsa’s fixed positions immerse audiences in the commotion, making us eyewitnesses to the shifting tensions and providing a chilling immediacy often lacking in common reportage (superb sound editing also helps). When announcements from the stage exhort doctors and medics to make themselves known, there’s no need to actually see the speaker, since the importance lies in the myriad sensations that build within each shot.
Anyone familiar with Loznitsa’s previous work (“Landscape,” “My Joy,” “In the Fog”) won’t be surprised by the director’s rigor. Aside from a few basic intertitles summing up events, “Maidan” dispenses with classic docu-style chronicling. Rejecting the usual focus on particular players, or the interpolation of news and activist footage common in movies from the Arab Spring, Loznitsa creates a film that refuses to interpret (although editing is a form of interpretation), and is one of the few documentaries about recent revolutions that won’t feel dated in five years.
Towards the end, chants of “Glory to the Heroes!” build and build, and then give way to the sounds of a chorus singing the traditional folk song “Plyve kacha po tysyni,” an achingly moving lament about a soldier afraid of dying on foreign soil. There’s an undeniable, defiant note of patriotism to this finale, one that may sit uncomfortably with auds wary of nationalist sentiment, but it feels true to the Ukrainians, still struggling to reinforce their beleaguered self-determination.