Square Rooted
by Jeff Reichert

Dir. Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine, Cinema Guild

Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s 2001 short The Train Stop consists solely of abstracted black-and-white images of people inside a train station. Most of the huddled forms the camera captures, singly or in small groups, are asleep, hunched over on benches, unmoving. The accumulation of these shots over the course of the film begs the question: what are they all waiting for? In his 2002 short, Portrait, a static camera turns a succession of Russian villagers, all standing stock still and looking straight at his lens, into cinematic tableaux vivant. Each portrait lasts for about a minute or so, and there’s no obvious intervention from the filmmaker throughout save that he’s a collected these images and arranged them in succession. His less overtly conceptual and more recognizably observational Factory (2004) looks, in its first half, at the working conditions for men manning a steel mill in the Russian Urals, and, in the second, those of women in a nearby clay factory. The film proceeds logically from a workday’s beginning through the process of production so that, by the end, viewers feel like they have some grasp on the labor involved in how things get made.

Techniques and interests sharpened in these early shorts crop up in Loznitsa’s latest, feature-length documentary Maidan, about the 2013-2014 Ukrainian uprising centered in the Kiev’s massive Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). Maidan’s first long shot holds steady on masses of faces looking back toward the camera while they listen to an off-screen speaker and begin singing the national anthem—now gathered for revolution, the populace requires portraiture on a larger collective scale than the individuals of Portrait. Immediately after, Loznitsa moves inside to show us bodies camped all around the floor of a massive building, slumped over in similar poses as The Train Stop. We’re still somewhat in the dark—we don’t know what they wait for yet, but the bustle around the edges of the frames suggests something is about to happen. Later, once we’ve learned a bit more about the context surrounding the static frames, Loznitsa constructs asides that reveal process and procedure—as in a sequence that documents the assembly-line preparation of foodstuff for the masses of demonstrators outside, which feels like it could have come straight from Factory.

Called the Euromaidan (“Euro Square”), the Ukrainian uprising that led to the ouster of President Yanukovych began in November of 2013 after the government put off signing the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement in favor of bolstering ties with Russia, which had recently cut off all imports from the Ukraine as a means of scuttling the EU deal and keeping the former Soviet Republic close. (Yanukovych had previously been deposed from his post as Prime Minister in 2004 during the Orange Revolution, sparked by widespread claims of voting irregularities—democracy in the Ukraine remains a fragile construction.) The demonstrations began peacefully on November 21st and turned violent by the 24th. Maidan seems to start a little after that—by the time the film begins and Loznitsa tours us around the massive square, there’s an almost jovial, festive calm in the air, not unlike that of the Occupy Wall Street camp in Zuccotti Park. As the protests wear on, we hear a handful of speakers rally the crowd (Loznitsa focuses on several poets addressing the massed throng, which makes one wonder about the cultural import of literati in that country), and the rhetoric shifts from dismay over Ukraine’s inability to join the EU to direct assaults on the criminality of the Yanukovych government. By the time we’ve reached February (guided along by a handful of restrained title cards providing basic context and chronology), Kiev is aflame.

Throughout Maidan, the camera only moves twice and each time it’s a revelation. In the first instance, tensions have mounted between protestors and the riot police deployed to clear them away. Tear gas begins spreading and the tripod-mounted camera is lifted by its operator and jostled awkwardly through space—it turns away from the protestors, scans across the faces of a few journalists packed together in what one assumes to be a safe spot for reporting, then stops, shudders and resets on the assembled riot police, barely visible in shadow and behind armored shields. In the second, the camera shakes on the street in time to explosions in the distance. Protesters run up to the police, toss rocks (earlier in the film Loznitsa, always interested in process, pauses to watch demonstrators using bricks to break other bricks into smaller, throwable pieces), then all of a sudden, the floodgates open and the police rush down the street. These are Loznitsa’s only nods to the kind of nervy, jittery Direct Cinema camerawork often employed to create that you-are-there sense in tense documentary moments. They seem to be included to highlight the things his film doesn’t do (sit-down interviews, lower-third name cards, direct address, man-on-the-street talks) and reveal all that is gained from his more formally restrained approach. They also remind that Loznitsa’s three-person camera crew (himself included) was there, close to the action, many times in it, setting up tripods and taking the time to compose beautiful frames able to hold the screen for minutes at a time.

If Loznitsa’s shorts provided the basic building blocks for Maidan, his 2006 medium-length archival film, Blockade is practically a fleshed-out schematic. In that film, he used rare footage of the WWII Leningrad siege to weave a historical city symphony. As in Maidan, he begins with calm, with preparations and processes, employs regular cuts to black throughout to provide something like chapter breaks, manages to create moments of deep tension from largely static frames and ends on an up beat before offering a disquieting grace note (in Blockade, the lifting of the siege, followed by the gruesome hanging of several captured Nazi officers; in Maidan, the cessation of hostilities, followed by a mass funeral for murdered protestors). Loznitsa’s two narrative features, My Joy (2010) and In the Fog (2012)—the former the first Ukrainian film to compete in the Cannes main selection—neatly complement his nonfiction work. Their confident, intricate sequence shots might suggest Loznitsa is just another practitioner of the slow/art cinema tropes that remain fashionable in cinephile sets the world over, yet in his films there’s a grounded earthiness and intensity along with an ever-expanding internal logic that pulls one along rather than reveal itself only in hindsight. Perhaps this stems from his focus on the specifics of his locations: My Joy’s parable of a truck driver descending into madness among the villagers of the Ukraine, all haunted by the weight if history, comes crusted with dried muck, while action-packed In the Fog’s peek into the struggle of Belarussian partisans fighting against the Nazis in the winter of 1942 feels icy and snow covered. It might be too simplistic to argue that his near-decade spent making documentary films prepared him to create immersive deeply empathetic films that have the feel of watching life as it is lived, but then how else does one explain the graceful authenticity of the films by those doc-makers turned narrative specialists the Dardenne brothers?

Maidan is one static frame after another filled with masses of people. Occasionally two shots will run in sequence—you hear and see a children’s choir from afar, and then we are moved in for a better look. But mostly, there is a shot, and then another shot, and then occasionally a fade to black. There are no characters. The protestors seem an organism entire. Time passes, things get more tense, some kind of resolution is reached. The film doesn’t tell us what that is. But one may ask where is Loznitsa’s perspective? Where is his point of view? What are we supposed to take away from this film? These are the questions that will unfortunately be asked by those who demand documentary merely provide information. Loznitsa doesn’t answer any of them, but a viewer paying attention and thinking carefully will know. Maidan shows how documentary works at its best and most pure—assemblage and accrual. His vast shots are made for the cinema—they hold so your eye can roam at will and pick out a young woman crying during the funeral for a slain protestor she likely never knew, or a cranky journalist rushing out of the fray, or men scrambling with makeshift stretchers to catch the wounded. No one is named, no one is introduced. The closest we get to someone addressing the camera is a strolling busker who asks if it’s okay for him to sing the national anthem. Yet, by the film’s end, we’ve seen a revolution happen. Anyone who leaves Maidan, a film bustling with life and bursting at the seams with detail, feeling like they didn’t get enough must not have known where to look.