Easily the most rigorous, vital, and powerful movie of 2014, Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan may be a perfect Bazinian cinema-machine — reality is captured, crystallized, honored for its organic complexity, and delivered unpoisoned by exposition or emphasis. Every dissatisfaction you could be nursing about the obvious and overdetermined tenor of contemporary film — and particularly modern documentaries — is met here with thrown bricks.
It helps that the “reality” in question is also heart-quickening. Before making the two best and most dismaying post-Soviet-region films of the last five years — My Joy (2010) and In the Fog (2012) — the Ukrainian-bred Loznitsa was a documentarian, and here he returns to his original strategy, with a steely-eyed vengeance. History may not have given him much of a choice: Once Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych opted to align with Putin’s Russia instead of Europe, Kievans by the thousands occupied the city’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) beginning the night of November 21, 2013. What could have been yet another ephemeral show of mass anger only grew in size and pride and determination as the days passed — by the time Loznitsa’s cameras showed up, the huge crowd had formed a bustling commune in the city center, set up a stage for speeches and poetry readings, created a viable village-in-a-city infrastructure, and erected barricades of junk that stretched nearly 20 feet in the air.
Loznitsa’s formal approach is central to Maidan‘s impact: He anchors his camera and takes in an establishing-shot expanse, holding the image often for minutes at a time. We hear ambient sound, over layers of human action, as Ukrainians of all ages — burly dads, hipster punks, tots, grandmas — mill about, dole out food, cheer, and break into song. (The national anthem is on everyone’s lips, forgivably, but it’s hard to forget the infectious protest bopper who bids the president “ciao, ciao, ciao!”) It’s a vision of a people’s utopia, built out of social warmth and laureled with fireworks.
Loznitsa leaves the political machinations out of it (there’s no narration or interviewing), but the “Maidan” goes on for months, happily — until, this February, when the protest was made illegal. “Greetings, criminals!” someone yells from the stage. The riot police appear for real, and the civilians begin breaking up bricks and making Molotovs. Our capacity as immobile witnesses just make the ensuing calamity more painful — the gunfire is distant, the explosions unexplained, the fireworks persistent.
The population remains bitterly unswayed — imagine this happening in an American city — and Loznitsa’s imagery becomes Dantean, the night filled with burning-tire smoke, water cannons, and the ominous phalanx of riot-gear body shields. (In one shot, the police are faced down by a single old woman, holding up a photograph we can’t see.) Bodies accumulate on- and offscreen (about 100 killed, we’re told in a title card), accommodations are made for surrendering police (!), and eventually funeral marches enthrall the crowd.
We know that the protests succeeded in ousting Yanukovych, and in precipitating Putin’s invasion that same month, but Loznitsa doesn’t indulge in aftermaths. As immediate and leveling as Patricio Guzman’s landmark The Battle of Chile (1975–76), Maidan is a testament to the human experience of resistance, and it is inspiring.