It’s possible to describe Sergei Loznitsa’s found-footage documentary “The Event” with complete detachment. The film is composed of black-and-white images shot by eight cameramen in St. Petersburg in 1991, when Communist Party stalwarts in Moscow tried to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. People poured onto the streets, the army refused to fire, the coup failed, and the Soviet Union was soon a thing of the past. However, Loznitsa relies on an intelligent audience with historical memory, and among that demographic, few will be unmoved by the inevitable pondering: What happened to the optimism of 1991? Fests are deservedly making room for “The Event.”
It was August, and a group of KGB officials and their cohorts, furious at the reforms taking place, hatched a plot to overthrow Gorbachev, then the president of the U.S.S.R., and Yeltsin, the president of Russia. When people awoke on the morning of Aug. 19, they were told that an emergency committee had been formed to rule the country and Gorbachev, then in his dacha in the Crimea, was too ill to govern. After the initial announcement, a news freeze was imposed, with radio stations broadcasting nothing but Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Less than four months later, the Soviet Union was no more.
Everyone outside the U.S.S.R. watched what was happening with a sense of disbelief: The inhabitants of Ronald Reagan’s ridiculously titled “evil empire” had had enough. The brilliance of “The Event” is the way Loznitsa brings us inside — not in the frantic meeting rooms of the plotters, but within the bosom of the people. Edited together from footage shot by eight cameramen who wandered the ever-increasing crowds that summer day in St. Petersburg, 400 miles away from the coup, the docu vividly captures the shift from bewilderment to empowerment as the population became ever more emboldened in their public disavowal of Bolshevism.
Several parallel lines of thought emerge while watching the film, making the footage doubly gripping, and Loznitsa masterfully accesses all lines of inquiry. As the crowds swell, anxious for real information, audiences will wonder: What do we really know about what happened during the coup? What alliances were made that allowed the U.S.S.R. to collapse, and who ultimately benefited? In retrospect, Vladimir Putin, briefly glimpsed as aide to St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, was unquestionably the victor, and a little Internet digging reveals that he maintained ties with the plotters (none of whom have ever been prosecuted).
By using this untapped footage, might Loznitsa be suggesting that the Russian people could rise up again and change the course of the country? Unlikely. Far more probable is that the director wants viewers to shake their heads in disbelief, questioning how it’s possible that, after such a seemingly spontaneous show of solidarity demanding freedom, the country is once again firmly in the hands of a dictator with just the kind of puppet parliament that Stalin himself set in place. Viewing “The Event” is an emotional experience, for all these reasons, including the stark conclusion that hope for a better world has withered, and the revolutions of the last 26 years did little to wipe the political landscape clean.
Loznitsa’s editing is unsurprisingly masterful in building his story without feeling like manipulation, and as usual in his documentaries, there is no imposed narrative and no voiceover. The images themselves are unmistakably Eastern European in feel, crisply black-and-white with pronounced contrasts of gray-scale tonalities. The audio is carefully slotted in, connected to the images in terms of message (slogans, rumors in the crowd, shouts) but often not glued to the footage. For anyone with a sense of history, the sight of crowds gathering outside the Winter Palace, or anti-communist placards decorating the Alexander Column in Palace Square, can’t fail to send chills, tapping into past, present and future.