Ralph Waldo Emerson has this to say on the difference between academic and letter writing: ‘The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend, – and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words’. This exchange of letters between Herman Asselberghs and Emiliano Battista certainly hopes to prove Emerson right, though it will be for you, the reader, to decide whether their exchanges are graced with ‘good thought’ and ‘happy expression’. Their subject is cinema and anything related thereto that seems to capture and reflect something of the contemporary situation. An exchange can be discrete, or build on an earlier one; it can be long, or short; lopsided, or even-keeled; it can come across as a dialogue, or as two monologues joined only by a common object... There are no rules, other than sticking to ‘chosen words’.
Whenever I think about Sergei Loznitsa’s new film, Maidan, I am reminded of the patriotic Ukrainian who sat right next to me during the film’s Belgian premiere at Bozar. In the film’s opening shot, we might even say its opening tableaux, we see, filling every inch of the screen, the huddled but orderly masses singing along to the national anthem. The way they are framed makes it seem as if they are at a concert, and indeed we’ll see later that a stage, complete with huge side screens, has been mounted on Maidan (or Independence) Square, and that is where the music is coming from. The second my neighbor heard her national anthem, she stood up and wrapped herself in the Ukrainian flag. Little did she know that variations of the opening composition, with the national anthem, would be repeated over the course of the film. And, significantly, the only person who interacts directly with the camera, the only one who even acknowledges its presence, is a busker who plants himself in front of it and plays the anthem; some of the people around him add their voices to his. My neighbor took a miss on these additional opportunities to express her patriotic zeal and solidarity, and of course to cast a large shadow on the screen (we were sitting towards the very back) and turn some heads in wonder. As we walked out, the first objection you raised against the film turned on what you called its ‘nationalism’. But I wonder if that is indeed the tenor of the film; in other words, I wonder if, when all is said and done, Loznitsa’s film mirrors and sustains the patriotism of my Ukrainian neighbor?
As everyone knows by now, Maidan documents the protests that broke out in Ukraine in December 2013, when then president Viktor ‘Vitya’ Yanukovych backed out of an agreement that would align the country more closely with the European Union, and chose instead to strengthen even further its ties to Moscow. Even before this, Vitya was seen as a corrupt puppet enfeoffed to Moscow and Putin, and this fateful decision was the straw that broke the camel’s back. People from all over Ukraine started gathering by the thousands on Maidan Square – ‘Vitya ciao, Vitya ciao, Vitya ciao ciao ciao’, the protesters sing time and again, adapting the Italian song ‘Bella ciao’ – and there they stayed until Vitya fled the country in February 2014. The film documents these protests, from the early and peaceful days, when the mood is more that of a very large Rainbow Gathering than anything else, to the dark and somber days when state repression takes an extremely violent turn and the gathering spirals into a living hell: many people die, many more are injured, snipers placed atop of buildings pick out bodies in the crowd, from the stage that but an hour earlier resounded with the national anthem and horrible poetry came desperate calls for doctors, or anyone with a modicum of medical training, to come forward, and announcements that the forces of order had switched to live ammunition. Against the superior might of state power stood the organized protestors, dislodging cobblestones, forming an assembly line to pass tires on to sites in need of defensive reinforcement, and – perhaps most poignantly, indeed almost pathetic – the protestor asking everyone around him for a lighter so he could light and throw his Molotov cocktail.
The beauty of the film – which I personally liked quite well – resides almost entirely in Loznitsa’s eye for composition, in the way his shots seem to be imbued with past representations of struggle: some shots are clearly modeled on engravings of the First Commune in Paris; the ominous appearance on the edges of the Square of police in riot gear and shields reminds us of May 68 and also of Jacques Demy’s Une chambre en ville, though here it is the silence of the forces of order that frightens; one shot seems to reference Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People; the shot of black smoke billowing furiously in the background while crowds in the foreground negotiate as best they can the mayhem and confusion is like seeing one of Bosch’s hell scenes, but animated – in fact, the growing place of fire as the situation worsens strengthens the sense that we’ve wandered into the universe of Bosch or Brueghel. And it was a long journey to these scenes from the early ones, when tired protestors filed into what looks like a school building to look for a place to sleep and a bit of downtime on their phones; when one of the volunteers preparing sandwiches is gently chided by his supervisor for not wearing gloves and for talking on his phone, which the supervisor goes so far as to confiscate, as if we were suddenly back in school! Even the weather seems complicit in the turn, and a film that starts on a sun-drenched afternoon gradually succumbs to greys and black, culminating of course in the pitch dark vigil, illuminated only by candles and cell phones, for fallen comrades. Visually and musically, this vigil is the counterpoint to the opening shot: the martial sentiments of the national anthem are answered by this song about a soldier afraid to die on foreign soil and far from home.
The question that arises for me, though, is this: can we really say that the film is about the protests? There is a whiff of sophistry to the question, I know, but the answer is not as straightforward as it might seem. What I want all of the preceding to suggest is that the film is about the representation of protest, and the dramatic arc of a movement, more than it is about the politics of this protest and this movement. Think about it: the film tells us preciously little about the political goals and aspirations of the protesters, other than getting Vitya to go. There is no reflection anywhere concerning the political consequences – pro and con – for Ukraine in establishing closer ties to the European Union, or of strengthening its already deep ties with Moscow. Out of hours of footage, Loznitsa kept speeches long on patriotic zeal and promises to fight to the death for freedom and independence, but short on politics; the clergymen who speak from the stage simply give patriotism a religious footing. The poems – embarrassingly bad one and all – offer more of the same. In this, the speeches and the poems do little more than echo and amplify the sentiments of the national anthem, so that everything we hear out of that stage turns out to be an infinite variation of the same. Nor does the film say anything about the complicated and ultimately unworkable alliances forged on Maidan Square between religious, progressive, conservative and right-wing forces, which find common cause in ousting Vitya, but do not share a political and social vision for the country. So this film about a charged political moment remains strangely, and deliberately, disconnected from the politics of that moment. What interests Loznitsa isn’t the politics of the protests, or their political ramifications; what he focuses on and brings to the screen is the dramatic arc of protests as such. Hence the sense that he might have been able to make the very same film about Tahrir Square, for example.
This is not a criticism of the film, but an attempt to situate what I think Loznitsa is trying to do with it. The fact that the broader political motivations, aspirations, ramifications and consequences of the protests remain absent from the film is not an accident, but a consequence of Loznitsa’s central aesthetic decision: to show the protests with a series of master shots, most of which last upwards of five minutes. The drawback to showing the revolution in master shots is that it limits the film to showing ‘the physical movement of a movement’, as Ben Kenigsberg writes in the New York Times. The master shot cannot parse the minutia of politics. But, then again, Loznitsa is aware of that, and the generality of his film – the fact that he could have made the same film somewhere else, and Lord knows there have been many occupied squares recently – becomes in his hands its strength. It is, admittedly, a peculiar strength, one that leaves my Ukrainian neighbor showing her allegiance to a choreography more than to a cause.
Eager to hear your thoughts,
This day of national strike seems an excellent moment to answer your thoughts on Maidan. I didn't know anything about the film before seeing it and I read few words about it afterwards, because, as you know, I was completely put off by the film. Its subscription to Ukranian-style nationalism is certainly not the sole nor the strongest objection I would like to raise against Loznitsa's cinematic representation of history-in-the-making. I am surprised to learn that even after finishing his bold project, the filmmaker still doesn't seem to know what to make of the fairly recent events on Kiev's Independence Square. 'Maidan is an enigma to me, which I am yet to solve', he states now, although in my opinion his film does not leave much room for indecision. The director’s self-declared inability to clearly understand what he saw and recorded may well be mirroring the spectator's suspended gaze upon the crowded square offered through long, uninterrupted master shots from fixed camera positions. Still, both the director's statement and his choice for (an impressively) rigorous style could wrongly suggest that Maidan is not directed, that this is a film that refuses to interpret.
I listen carefully when you're saying that this political film is oddly disconnected from actual politics and that it is therefore all about the dynamics of mass upheaval in general. That is certainly why it reminded me already halfway into the screening of its most unlikely next of kin: Woodstock. I remember that epic concert movie as an equally grand documentary film undertaking to capture a seminal moment in the history of mass events. In the two films, the shift from party zone to disaster area feels remarkably similar. And I have to admit that in both cases I did not particularly warm up to the cast. Forget about the hippie crowd of yesteryear but really, what's up with the folks in today’s Ukraine? Judging from Loznitsa's broad-brush canvases, the Maidan public uprising seems a far cry from any Rainbow Gathering that one would presume, hope or wish for in contemporary Europe. I quickly became wary of the all-male leadership on stage, primarily excelling in blatantly patriotic rhetoric and proudly displaying a disturbing love of martyrdom, all of it all too eagerly shared by the many protestors off stage. I kind of expected the film to prove your overexcited neighbor wrong. But instead of gradually modulating our first impression of that opening sequence through his interesting use of repetition and variation, each new long take of the people singing the national anthem drives home the filmmaker's endorsement of a jingoist agenda. My guess is that your neighbor merely showed the intended response and although at times I can become fond of films that try to mobilize the audience, this one got on my nerves because of it.
Due to its rigidly formalist visual treatment, Maidan looks far removed from the online consumer cam aesthetics that usually offers the template for the covering of current street protest. But, as in Woodstock, its soundtrack, and to be more precise, its sound design, really makes a difference. As carefully composed as its monumental painting-like images, the audio track deploys a strategic use of recitation, declamation, singing, chanting, shouting and screaming in order to sculpt one collective voice out of the many individuals that brought about this human mass movement. I would need to see the film again to be able to pinpoint those moments where the sound studio treatment of the acoustics of the Euromaidan event (such as determined chants resounding from the crowd over a black image) contribute to its solemn and sermonic tone. Sure, one can hardly hold good and efficient use of sound against a filmmaker. My point is that Loznitsa employs sonic depth-of-field and acoustic off-screen space in a very steering if not manipulative and, yes, interpretative, way. It is far more calculating than his visual aesthetics of 'slow cinema' suggests, for panoramic long duration in cinema usually aims at opening up the range of possible spectator responses, at the risk that boredom will be one of them. (I do find 'slow cinema' a ridiculous label, I'm just using it here as a shorthand.)
Steering away from dictating what the spectator should think or feel is not what this director is doing. On the contrary, his grand finale – an all-time low to me – is the best example: the massive wide-shot of the cell-phone lighted vigil you refer to, when casket bearers move through the crowd, shamelessly exploits cheesy sentiments (the off-screen stage speaker announcing the number of kids surviving their fallen father? Come on!) and, worse, the sinister theatricals and heroics of sacrifice. Permit me to quote the final lines of the film's recent review in Sight & Sound: 'Without glamorizing or vicariously dramatizing the events to which it bears witness, the film finds a new, non-rhetorical language to salute the will to freedom and dignity, the ability to forge order from chaos – and the almost ritualistic way in which these efforts and sacrifices require making and remaking'. Did this reviewer see the same film I saw? Did you see that film? Because, if so, I need to watch it again to make sure that I'm not totally off track here. Apart from different opinions on the fine art of cinema, why does this writer succumb so easily to the film’s ominous logic of martyrdom? Would he be willing to subscribe to the same creepy rhetoric if it were vented by political Islam, aka Islamist radicals?
Although I think that the film does give an idea of the type of (self-)organization crucial to peaceful public revolt, I agree with you that Maidan does not intend to parse the minutia of politics. I don't expect it to and I respect its filmmaker for his attempt to aim for a/the bigger picture. I would have respected him more, though, if he also would have included some reflection on the difficulties of his grand gesture. Again, the funeral ceremony scene is a telling one: the prominent presence of cell phones as updated versions of candles makes for a nice poetic setting but wouldn't it be more interesting, more accurate and more contemporary to also try and give, somehow, the digital recordings of these mobiles their due place in this ambitious historical fresco? I understand Loznitsa's project as being supported by an heroic view of cinema, by a triumphant belief in the mythical powers of cinema to witness and record the event in order to produce an epiphany in front of the spectator. His is an invitation to wait for cinema to make the conundrum of history visible. (Don't you think it would be refreshing to see and discuss the film with a viewer who shied away from all news coverage of the prolonged crisis in Ukraine?) However, Maidan solves the riddle by posing a new riddle: it admonishes us to gape in awe at the mystery play of mass revolt, to contemplate the people exalted as a true enigma. I have a hard time not deeming this approach as a Romantic expression of nostalgia. Nostalgia for cinema. Nostalgia for revolution. Nostalgia for whatever relationship they may have shared in the past.
I hate to break the news but the exclusive liaison between cinema and revolution, imagined or not, surely belongs to the previous century (as does its beautiful elegy: Histoire(s) du cinéma, 1988-1998). These days, the sounds and images of uprisings, insurrections, rebellions and revolts, big, large, small, medium-sized, short, continued, extended, never-ending, over before you notice, to be endorsed or not, get disseminated in real time via social media and different online platforms. These uploads and downloads are ample fodder for struggles that are waged both physically and representationally. For sure, the primal scene of the revolution has always resisted representation. But now, due to the instant distribution of multiple perspectives on the site of the event, as well as the instant multiplication of distributed perspectives, the Square where it all happens evidently stays the epicenter of the action, though it can no longer remain the focal point of its story. By focusing on one stage of history, this film director forgets (willingly, I would think), and makes us forget, not only about its backstage and aftermath but also about what happens simultaneously on different, equally important sites at the same time. Come to think of it: the Woodstock festival may have had one glorious arena, yet any music event worth its salt these days has multiple stage shows going on at the same time. Plus a legion of smartphones uploading the events in real time to different types of social media platforms. A truly ambitious film on historical change should take these sorts of transformations into account.
Hey, when it comes to filming the revolution, I think Maidan is far better than The Hunger Games. But compared to Videogramme einer Revolution I find it really terrible.
See you very soon,