Ukraine protest film in Cannes has 'cast of thousands'


Posted at May 23 2014 07:00 AM | Updated as of May 23 2014 03:00 PM

Seeing people shot down as the insurrection in Kiev's Maidan square built to a climax might not be everyone's idea of a movie night out, but watching it filmed on the epic scale of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein's films is breathtaking.

That is exactly what the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa had in mind for his documentary film "Maidan", screened this week at the Cannes International Film Festival.

His film is a fly-on-the-wall view of the Maidan uprising, which started last year and led to President Viktor Yanukovich fleeing the country in February. It has a cast of thousands - the very people who protested in the square day after day, week after week, to oust the Russian-backed Yanukovich.

Loznitsa, whose previous feature films have dealt with fictionalized but gritty topics such as a man during World War Two being accused of collaborating with the Germans, said his inspiration for "Maidan" came from "Strike" by Eisenstein, the Soviet director best known for his epic "Battleship Potemkin" which practically invented the term "cast of thousands".

"The question is how I created drama. Well, there is a great example that exists in our culture, in the culture of Russian cinema, and it’s the film 'Strike' by Eisenstein, where you have these great masses of people in action," Loznitsa told Reuters.

Loznitsa's film takes more than two hours to play out and it has its longeurs, especially at the beginning when the protest in Kiev's main square against Yanukovich's decision to scrap an association agreement with the European Union assumed a lighthearted, carnival atmosphere.

People are shown cooking huge vats of food, carrying around trays of tea to the huge crowd and listening to protest songs.

Anti-government speeches blasted from a central stage over a massive sound system can be heard constantly on the soundtrack but the people making those speeches are almost never seen, which Loznitsa said was by design.

"As far as the politicians were concerned I had the impression that it wasn’t them who were the leaders and in control of events. They had no hand in the turn of events and what inevitably happened," he said.

"The film was going to be about people. I didn’t want to have a number of main protagonists and that’s why I needed long takes, long static takes to show the people.”

The mood of the protesters turns distinctly darker, and the film's pace picks up, as the occupation of the square stretches into February of this year.

A march on parliament by the protesters to demand Yanukovich's ouster provokes battles with police and shortly afterwards riot police move in to clear the square.

It is in these scenes that Loznitsa's fly-on-the-wall viewpoint with a widescope, cinema camera really pays off.

The screen is filled with details as the unflinching lens records a policeman being shot on a rooftop, a protester asking people for a light for his Molotov cocktail and later, during the police effort to crush the protest, several people falling to the ground as they are struck by police bullets.

There is no narration, except for the constant speechifying and ranting over the protesters' sound system, but at various points the screen goes dark and text notices sum up the stage the protest has reached.

One of the last such texts says that during the protests, which led to Yanukovich's flight, more than 100 people were killed, a similar number went missing and hundreds were injured.

Russian media saw the same events in different terms, portraying protesters as nationalist militants and provocateurs; no heroes in the Eisenstein mould, but an anti-democratic mob.

"The picture is just information, all reports are just information," Loznitsa said when asked what his film had contributed to the understanding of what happened in Ukraine.

"What I add is a proposition to reflect about this event - what it was actually."