Self-reflection through the visual

Notes on some Maidan documentaries

8 April 2016
Only in en
Today, the Maidan revolution lives on in a wealth of documentary films about the events of 2013-14 in Ukraine. Yustyna Kravchuk compares and contrasts the approaches of the films' creators, and the implications of these for the articulation of collective political desires.

Maidan happened in multiple spaces. Just as it unfolded in historically real urban space, it also took place in the media space, including on multiple screens. Today, the events of 2013-14 in Kyiv are already history, yet Maidan, to some degree, continues its on-screen existence in numerous documentaries. An enormous amount of visual material recorded on Maidan has led to the documentary film form becoming one of the most, if not the most, appropriate ways to approach and understand these events. Andrei Ujica, the Romanian filmmaker who co-created with Harun Farocki the famous Videograms of a Revolution, put it nicely: “in 1989, a hundred cameras followed what was happening in Romania; history is no longer divided into theatrical scenes, nor into literary chapters – it is perceived as a sequence; and the sequence demands a film.”1

A closer look at some of the Maidan documentaries can, on the one hand, familiarize us with the major visual narratives of the 2013/14 revolution. On the other hand, it reveals some broader ethical issues that were a matter of concern for Ukrainians during Maidan and their aftermath, as well as providing answers to a range of theoretical questions about the nature of the documentary film image. How does documentary film space relate to the historically real revolutionary space? What is the function of a documentary image? What makes the documentary image such a suitable medium for the articulation of revolutionary subjectivity? Is documentary film supposed to inform us by giving a detailed commentary on the social and political context of the events it represents? If so, then what distinguishes it from an analytical text or news report? Surprisingly, some public responses to several Maidan documentaries show that these questions, seemingly so outdated from the perspective of documentary film theory, still need answering.

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Premiering in March 2014, Euromaidan: Rough Cut became one of the first full-length documentaries highlighting the revolutionary events of Maidan. The film is a collective work by a number of independent filmmakers, some of them film school students who chose filming as their mode of involvement in the protests. Thus the film raises the important issue of the filmmakers’ engagement and responsibilities in the context of political unrest. Indeed, as with many political uprisings that took place in the second half of the twentieth century, Maidan generated a great deal of grassroots video production. The need to film developments as they happened, which also arose during the revolutionary events of 1968 in France, resulted in the creation of filmmakers’ collectives, among which BABYLON’13 is the most widely known in the context of Maidan.

Euromaidan: Rough Cut consists of short films by various filmmakers put together in chronological order so as to highlight the most important episodes during three revolutionary months. While the film is formally structured as a chronicle, every episode takes place in a different location. The narrative commences before the Monument of Independence, where peaceful protesters were first brutally beaten by police. It then travels through the occupied Kyiv City Administration building to Besarabska Square, where the Lenin monument was toppled, and moves on towards Hrushevskoho and Instytutska Street, which were marked by the most violent clashes with security forces. Thus there is always a street, monument or building that, within the physical space of the protest, works as a sign referring to a particular event during the course of the uprising.

In Maidan, the Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa represents events from a more detached perspective. Consisting of long wide static shots, Maidan stresses the non-intervention of the filmmaker. This and some other formal means used by Loznitsa, such as the complete rejection of any voiceover commentary, make Maidan comparable to what some documentary film theorists call observational cinema, and others direct cinema or cinéma vérité.2

If Euromaidan: Rough Cut represents Maidan as a rather heterogeneous phenomenon composed of a multitude of individual stories, Loznitsa’s aim is rather to preserve the spatial and temporal continuity of developments as they unfolded in the square. It might seem that there are no actual developments and nothing is really happening, because for almost two hours, the filmmaker shows us mostly the mundane everyday life of the protesters. By doing so, he makes the very basic structure of Maidan visible to the viewer. This structure includes all kinds of self-organized social institutions, which existed for months within the square, such as kitchens, a system of housing, a university, a church, a health care system, a defense system, etc. Thus, with a set of predefined editing strategies, Loznitsa plunges the viewer into Maidan as a social whole, which is a complex of social relations, power relations and their continuous transformation in the face of the gradual escalation of violence. We observe a long process by which the revolutionary masses gain their political subjectivity, resulting in the overthrow of the regime.

But the everyday practices of protesters are certainly not the only thing that interests Loznitsa. He pays equal attention to exploring the rhetoric people use on the Maidan to express their desires. He consciously omits all speeches by politicians, focusing mainly on what he calls the vox populi.3 Yet, what defines the “voice of the people” in this instance is the complete absence of political language. People on the Maidan do not articulate their demands in political terms, but rather through a set of symbolic rituals. They speak the language of improvised folklore, music and poetry. The absence of political vocabulary in this language is very symptomatic of the Ukrainian context in general, where political discussion in the public sphere has simply not existed for decades – neither during the Soviet era, nor during the ensuing social shock of the 1990s.

This political muteness in the case of Maidan led to an outbreak of violence on Hrushevskoho Street in January 2014. The documentary All Things Ablaze by Oleksandr Techynskyi, Oleksiy Solodunov and Dmytriy Stoikov explores exactly the moment when the rituals of the protesters erupt into violence. The footage is from precisely those locations where the most violent clashes with the police took place and, in contrast to Loznitsa’s Maidan, it’s characterized by dynamism rather than stasis, with its short scenes and fast-moving sequences.

In All Things Ablaze, the transient moment when peaceful protest gives way to violence is peculiarly represented in a scene featuring the aftermath of the destruction of the Lenin monument. The scene is filmed from the middle of the crowd of mostly far-right activists breaking the statue into pieces and, seeing their ecstatic faces, it’s hard not to interpret this as a sort of ceremonial act. It’s as if we are observing some primitive scene of sacrifice – a rather desperate act that happened to fail the first time.4 What happens next is that this symbolic violence against a historical figure develops into real force against the oppressive regime. Scenes from Hrushevskoho Street, the administrative district, Instytutska Street, as represented in All Things Ablaze, are so overwhelming and saturated with violence that at some point the images loose their spectacular nature and the violence takes on the appearance of really hard work, an unavoidable and necessary act that is able to resolve the dead-end situation.

Today, two years since Maidan’s finale, new documentary representations of the phenomenon continue to flourish. In many of them, violence is even more of an issue. On 18 February 2016, the short documentary The Breaking Point premiered on Hromadske.tv.5 Focusing on the bloodiest chapter in the history of Maidan – the mass killings of 20 February 2014, the film raises the question of how to represent collective trauma. How to depict events of the recent past associated with mass killings that still distress millions of people? For this purpose, the creators of The Breaking Point Angelina Karyakina and Anastasiya Stanko chose a genre of journalistic investigation that approaches the topic with minimum emotion and only focuses on facts. The film features an interview with one of the protesters – Ivan Bubenchik, who confesses to shooting two police commanders.6 His testimony is accompanied by the statements of witnesses, lawyers, investigators, prosecutors, and a great mass of video-material that is given the status of evidence in the investigative process.

The Breaking Point, on the one hand, revealed some uncomfortable truths about Maidan that stand in a certain opposition to the mainstream Ukrainian narrative that heroizes protesters as victims. Thus it generated a debate on whether Bubenchik’s deed can be justified. On the other hand, besides raising the ethical dilemma, the film confounds all conspiracies about preplanned bloodshed, so eagerly told on both sides of the conflict. By telling this important truth, though disturbing to some, The Breaking Point considers Maidan activists as the main and only decisive force in what happened on 20 February in the streets of Kyiv. The people who expressed their collective will, and subverted from below all possible plans and scenarios stage-managed by the political elites, thus acquire political subjectivity.

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The films analyzed above constitute only a small portion of a huge array of documentary film materials that have emerged two years since the end of the Revolution of Dignity and continue to emerge today. My intention here is not to consider as many of them as possible, but rather to make a selection for more detailed analysis, in the full knowledge that my selection could itself be considered a statement. The selection is made according to two main principles: firstly, all of the films were produced independently, without any involvement of mainstream television broadcasters or big production companies. This would imply that they tend not to be embedded in dominant ideologies. Secondly, they were mostly shot by Ukrainian filmmakers present on the Maidan as the revolutionary events unfolded. Thus they may well serve as some of the most vivid examples of attempts to understand how Maidan came to be.

Certainly, these films give neither a clear nor a comprehensive understanding of what happened during the Maidan revolution of 2013-14 – even if this was something that western and Ukrainian critics alike often expected from them. As a result, the critics came away from the films disappointed, especially in the case of Loznitsa’s Maidan.7 Documentary film cannot, in principle, lay claim to universal truthfulness, something to which Loznitsa himself attests when commenting on his work: there can be no objective stance towards history, only facts are objective, and the documentary filmmaker can either suggest his own interpretations of facts, or leave the viewer to draw their own conclusions.8

It is precisely this room for interpretation and thought that each of the films discussed above grants to the viewer, especially through minimal editing and the lack of narrative voiceover – which in more conventional documentary film is meant to give extensive answers to the questions posed by the events or processes that are represented. Rather, the creators I have mentioned let the images speak for themselves. At the same time, through a visuality almost unmediated by text, the documentary film submerges the viewer in a brute reality that directly confronts the experience of death.

On a formal level, the images win a subjectivity of their own, in a similar way to the people – the main protagonist of all the abovementioned films – who gain their political subjectivity during the course of revolutionary struggle. If there is any universal truth about Maidan, then it can be articulated like this: people with their own hands, their own efforts and will ousted the oppressive political regime from power. Loznitsa, as well as the creators of The Breaking Point, All Things Ablaze and Euromaidan: Rough Cut, try to deliver this truth in their own particular way. By contrast, most of the discourses that try to undermine this truth by constructing all sorts of conspiracy theories about the involvement of external forces in the violent settlement of the conflict on the Maidan can be considered reactionary and propagandist.

The recognition of oneself as an active subject has to be followed by self-reflection in thought. The discourse of documentary film is much more appropriate for reflection than media discourse. The news reporter works with facts and actuality, therefore, he reflects the reality. The documentary filmmaker’s material is always already a history which means that he works with subjective truths, therefore, he reflects on reality. Every Maidan documentary I’ve chosen can be considered a specific reflection, in a philosophical sense, on a political experience that thousands of Maidan protesters went through. Besides, every responsible documentary filmmaker always has to reflect on his/her own visual strategy when searching for the most appropriate way to represent such a complicated and multidimensional phenomenon as Maidan.

Like the documentary filmmaker who reflects on his visual language, post-Maidan society in Ukraine has to question the vocabulary it uses in the realm of politics. Does it still speak the language of songs and rituals as in Loznitsa’s Maidan? Or is it a desperate language of violence like in All Things Ablaze? Has a more relevant lexicon for the articulation of collective political desires already been invented, or is it still subject to an ongoing process?

  1. See Ujica's interview in Film Quarterly, spring 2011, www.filmquarterly.org/2011/03/interview-with-andrei-ujica/
  2. See Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Indiana University Press, 1991, 38-44
  3. See "Inside 'Maidan': Sergei Loznitsa on his Ukrainian uprising doc and Putin's 'fascist' regime", The Daily Beast, 24 May 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/24/inside-maidan-sergei-loznitsa-on-his-ukrainian-uprising-doc-and-putin-s-fascist-regime.html
  4. There were two attempts to demolish the Lenin monument, with the first on 1 December 2014 being unsuccessful. It took place after protesters failed to take the Administration of the President of Ukraine. History then repeated itself on 8 December, only this time the mission was successfully accomplished.
  5. A YouTube link to the film itself: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ooFvNeBeOlw
  6. See Katya Gorchinskaya's "He killed for the Maidan", Foreign Policy, 26 February 2016 foreignpolicy.com/2016/02/26/he-killed-for-the-maidan/
  7. See, for example, a short review by Jakub Majmurek: www.krytykapolityczna.pl/artykuly/film/20140709/majmurek-golgota-i-majdan, or/and by Uilleam Blacker and Olesya Khromeychuk: www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/uilleam-blacker-olesya-khromeychuk/film-review-'all-things-ablaze'-dir-by-oleksandr-techyn
  8. See Loznitsa's interview on taz.de: www.taz.de/!5009323/

Published 8 April 2016

Original in English
First published in Eurozine and Tr@nsit online

Contributed by Transit
© Yustyna Kravchuk / IWM / Eurozine

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