Films of the Week: Maidan and We Are the Giant
We Are the Giant
It may not be strictly true to say that history is happening faster than ever. But today—thanks to electronic media in general, and social media in particular—we can certainly see and hear it happening with much shorter delays than ever before. Traditional television, radio, and print coverage struggle to persuade us that they’re not entirely redundant in the Twitter age, with news breaking and spreading the very moment that it happens. Imagine, then, how archaic cinema documentary must now seem, with its invariably longer postproduction processes, how far it is doomed to lag behind other communication channels.
Yet this is precisely a time when we need the possibilities that serious documentarists can offer. Some can genuinely lay claim to having an truly independent voice, or to gathering the testimonies of independent or non-official voices; for example, in this year’s Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (which I haven’t yet seen), Ossama Mohammed mixes YouTube footage with material filmed in Homs by activist Wiam Simav Bedirxan. Those documentarists who take longer to prepare and present their material can also claim to offer a critical distance not available to those who work in the moment. For others, the language of cinematic documentary, while it hardly guarantees objectivity or even detachment, offers at least the possibility of an uncluttered, lucid presentation of events: there’s something at least refreshing, even liberating in the absence of corporate logos, screens within screens, tickertape “breaking news” strips and all the other distracting furniture of TV news.
Two contrasting documentaries about recent protest and activism are released this week. One of them is anything but uncluttered, but its claim to our attention is based on a pamphlet-like urgency of presentation. We Are the Giant—by U.S. director Greg Barker, who made last year’s Manhunt—is about three pairs of activists involved in the Arab Spring. They are: Osama and Muhannad Bensadik, a father and son involved in the Libyan struggle against the Gaddafi regime; Syrian activists Ghassan Yassin and Motaz Murad; and sisters Zainab and Maryam Al-Khawaja, active in Bahrain. All of them have vital stories to tell, sometimes disturbing, generally inspiring even when the individual outcomes are tragic: Muhannad Bensadik, for example, was killed at 21; the sisters’ father, veteran activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, was subjected to horrific torture in prison; and only last week, Zainab—a hugely charismatic embodiment of modern revolution, tweeting as @angryarabiya—was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment after tearing up a photo of Bahrain’s King Hamad.
We Are the Giant
As the title suggests, We Are the Giant is a very impassioned film; in a sense, it’s a primer in revolution, and an advert for its energies. Throughout, quotations flash up from historic makers of social change—Jesus, Mohammed, Thomas Jefferson, Che Guevara—and glossy, fast-moving animated sequences show images of revolution through the ages. This device is singularly unhelpful—it makes little sense to indiscriminately collate images of Lenin, Mao, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Solidarnosc, as if the kinds of revolution they embodied were all equivalent. The shortcomings of such montage—more a mash-up of historical “highlights” than a properly dialectical juxtaposition—comes in the Syrian sequence. A piece of street-shot footage shows a young girl happily singing in a street—suddenly and terrifyingly interrupted as a bomb goes off behind her. We then get a quotation from Stalin—“The easiest way to gain control of a population is through acts of terror”—followed by a montage of acts of such oppression (Sharpeville, Soviet tanks in Prague, Burma), but it tells us nothing except that tyrannical states act in horrifying ways.
In presentation, the film is a sometimes manic, sometimes over-romanticized mess, but the debate comes from the people it introduces us to. Interviews with its subjects intercut with footage from various sources, both formal (TV) and informal (mobile phone footage). Some of the testimony is startling and direct—like Osama remembering his boy urging him to action “like a father talking to a son,” and the Al-Khawaja sisters talking about their father’s example. A key theme that emerges from their comments is a debate on peaceful as opposed to armed resistance: Motaz Murad, for example, argues that revolution is compromised when weapons are introduced, because then the power really belongs to whoever supplies the arms. The film’s too deliberately stirring filmic rhetoric dulls its effect, but its remarkably courageous subjects are fascinating in themselves; it would have been better either to see a longer film giving all three pairs a cooler analytical treatment, or a more detailed portrait of any one duo. As it is, the third section, on the sisters, somewhat dominates, just because it has a greater clarity, and because the two are such lucid and compelling on-screen presences.
A completely different approach is taken by Byelorussian-born Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa in his Maidan. Loznitsa was a documentarist before turning to fiction in his unsettling My Joy (10) and In the Fog (12), and Maidan is his extremely controlled depiction of the protests in Kiev last winter against Ukraine’s then president Victor Yanukovich. Maidan gives the lie to the idea that cinema documentaries are inevitably dated by the time they appear: the last events filmed here happened in February 2014, and the film premiered only three months later in Cannes.
Maidan at once plunges us into the thick of events and yet maintains a rigorous detachment from them. Loznitsa—one of three cinematographers, alongside Serhiy Stefan Stetsenko and Mykhailo Yelchev—took his cameras into Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan Nezalezhnosti, where the protest movement known as “Euromaidan” or simply “Maidan” took root last November in response to Yanukovich’s refusal of closer integration with Europe. The film follows the occupation of the square over several months, during which the government imposed laws against freedom of speech and public gatherings, activists marched on the Parliament building, and riot police moved in on the square with live ammunition. In the end, one of the film’s handful of captions tell us, over 100 people were killed, over 100 were missing, and hundreds were injured, while Yanukovich himself fled to Russia in February.
It’s an intensely dramatic story, and no one would have blamed Loznitsa for presenting his material to evoke a heightened sense of the white heat of history. In fact, Maidan is all the more intense for the sobriety of its execution. Loznitsa simply plants his cameras in and around the square and shows us what’s happening in a series of fixed shots. They include a series of panoramas of a crowd listening to speakers on a podium, with deep focus allowing us to study in detail the faces of hundreds of citizens of all ages: we’re reminded that history is made by ordinary people, not necessarily only full-time activists, but also citizens simply inspired to turn up on the day. The film’s first section shows the backstage area of revolution, as it were: the halls and corridors of an august-looking building that become the headquarters of the protest movement; people wander around distractedly, try to catch some sleep on the floor at night, read posters and signs on the wall, or just take refuge from the winter cold. A later sequence shows us kitchen volunteers preparing sandwiches.
In general, Loznitsa gives us the mass instead of the individual—shows the surge and flow of the crowd, rather than the supposed focus of the action. We hear, but only sometimes see, speakers on stage, some of them poets encouraging the cause with what sounds like fairly sentimental doggerel, to judge by the subtitles and the delivery. But mainly the film is about the crowd of people determined to stick it out in the square for as long as necessary. As a result, there are only a few shots that obviously stand out as striking—although conversely, there’s a barely a shot in the film that isn’t striking. One can say that in editing the film, Loznitsa has been very democratic in organizing his material: few obvious highlights, no mere interludes. A few images, however, do stand out as different: vistas of the square overshadowed by black plumes of smoke, and a remarkable shot through a bus window, with massed police riot shields on the other side.
By and large, the camera doesn’t move: Loznitsa positions it and, instead of seeking action, allows action to fill the space of the shot if it happens to come along. The camera does move a couple of times, however; once during a skirmish at night, when someone shouts out that the “Berkut” special forces are shooting at journalists, and the camera moves to a safer place nearby (relatively safer: everyone we see seems to be coughing and gagging from tear gas). Later, the camera scans the action from a rooftop when the conflict is at its height.
Maidan is hard to follow at times because there are few captions (which only explain general background events) and no authorial commentary. The commentary instead comes from what we hear on site: speeches on stage, songs in the crowd, a protest poem muttered sotto voce by someone off-screen early on, Ukraine’s national anthem as sung by the crowd and also by a man who wanders into shot carrying a guitar and ends up as the focus of an impromptu sing-along. There’s also the heart-rending traditional lament sung during a funeral at the end of the film; and a bouncy satirical rewrite of “Bella Ciao” at Yanukvich’s expense (“Vitya, Ciao!”). The voice of the people comes in many different registers.
The film ends up telling you a certain amount about what happened in Kiev—and these days, documentaries arguably don’t need to provide too much specific detail, but rather spur you to go and Google the hard information for yourself. What Maidan does is to show us how it was to be there, day after day. Loznitsa at once captures the thick of it, and lets us stand back and watch from afar. And while the framings are not overtly painterly as such, the act of framing does something extraordinary: each shot becomes a sort of epic canvas, rather like the Russian historical paintings of the 19th century. But each detail of each shot shows you how a multitude of small everyday moments, often mundane in themselves, together make epic history: Maidan demonstrates that revolution is also the small business of daily life. In other words, within any event of earth-shattering change, there’s always going to be someone trying to catch a wink of sleep, or getting on with the catering.