‘Maidan’ Review: A Grand, Unflinching Epic of the Ukrainian Revolution

Maidan is a film built from the raw material of revolution. That may seem like an obvious point. It is, after all, a documentary about the Euromaidan protests that exploded in Ukraine in November of 2013 and toppled the government of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February of 2014. Yet this is no cursory overview of the events nor even a dramatically-minded chronicle of its participants. This is a documentary by Sergei Loznitsa, and as such it is a formally rigorous effort to capture the essence of a specific time and place. The tumult of these four months in Kiev only make the achievement more urgent and breathtaking.

This is not a new kind of project for Loznitsa, even though he is perhaps best known internationally for his two narrative features, In the Fog and My Joy. Many of his documentary shorts have taken a similar approach to setting, creatively arranging the images and sounds of such rural affairs as ice fishing and waiting for the bus, to paint a cinematic landscape. Here, however, the subject matter has caused Loznitsa to create something much more masterful. Maidan’s title comes from the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kiev, from whence the Ukrainian Revolution sprung.

This makes the obvious comparison to Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated The Square, which brought Tahrir Square and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution to the screen. “Maidan” literally translates to “square” and derives from the Arabic word “midan,” which is the Arabic title of Noujaim’s film. Yet the two films could not be more different. Noujaim’s feels like an epic novel, following a small handful of principal characters through well over a year of victories and upheavals. Loznitsa’s lone protagonist is the Ukrainian people.

There are no interviews and almost no close-ups. Maidan is composed of wide, stationary shots of the revolution taken from dramatic angles, often lasting minutes at a time. The director progresses chronologically from the joyful, peaceful early days of November through the government’s attempts to violently put down the protest movement. He observes those assembled both from within and from above, capturing both the sheer number of people involved and the shared mood of those right at the barricades. Individual characters come and go, performing brief revolutionary emotions and actions before receding back into the panorama.

It is never a faceless crowd, however. The primary mover of this revolution is not the unconscious, Hegelian hand of history but rather the Ukrainian people as a sum of individuals. The first shot of the film is a sea of impassioned faces, opening a rally by singing the Ukrainian national anthem in unison. Loznitsa lingers on this image not simply to drive home the quantity of protesters, but to allow the eye to wander from individual to individual. He employs this strategy often, coaxing the audience to peer deeper into the revolution’s grandest images.

This approach dovetails with Loznitsa’s commitment to the musical side of communal resistance. It is not only the hymnal power of the anthem that inspires the protesters to remain in the square. Equally present is the protest song/dance tune “Vitya Ciao,” which pokes fun at President Yanukovych, his reliance on Vladimir Putin’s support and his notoriously lavish private estate. There is music everywhere, much of it spontaneous. An enormous stage stands in the middle of Maidan Nezalezhnosti, where everyone from politician and boxer Vitali Klitschko to Eurovision-winner Ruslana speak to the people. Less famous people get their chance at the mic as well, reciting poems and adding their own personal voice to the collective cry for freedom.

Maidan is a film that captures the spirit of a revolution by identifying and replicating its ideals. The physical space of the square is a metaphor for the social space of the nation, here represented by those crowded into Kiev’s center to demand change. The Berkut, the special police that would be held responsible for most of the revolution’s nearly 100 civilian deaths, are always distant and troublingly undefined by Loznitsa’s camera. In one memorable scene they perch upon a far off rooftop, looking to snipe the revolutionaries assembled below. They are perhaps more divorced from the crowd by their darkened uniformity than by their violence.

The slapdash military tactics and the rushed medical assistance of the protesters creates a sense of community that starkly opposes the police. These images of unified resistance to an unjust government are enormously powerful in their own right, and Loznitsa uses them perfectly. Divorced from the intimate, intricate details of political difference and international pressure, Maidan is a portrait of a people, a place and a moment rather than a dissertation on its context or implications. It is raw, unflinching cinema for a troubled nation in a great and terrible moment.

Maidan is now playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.