Interview: Sergei Loznitsa
Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan had its world premiere last May in a special screening at Cannes, where it could be easily missed amidst the usual ballyhoo surrounding the main Competition. Yet Loznitsa’s disarmingly picturesque record of the 2013-14 popular protests in Kiev and their violent suppression had the urgency of a dispatch from the barricades, especially in the wake of Russia’s invasion of the Crimea and on the eve of the Ukraine’s presidential election. (The situation continued to develop.) Better known of late for his fiction features In the Fog (12) and My Joy (10), Loznitsa at Cannes had the air of the explicitly engagé filmmaker, as he returned to his roots as a documentarian with Maidan and a short, Reflections, in another selection at the festival, the omnibus Bridges of Sarajevo.
FILM COMMENT spoke with Loznitsa at Cannes about Maidan, which opens Friday for an exclusive one-week run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. (Last month, the director visited Anthology Film Archives for a discussion following the screening of three of his short films, including Reflections, as part of Flaherty NYC.)
The style of the film is quite distinctive—mostly wide, fixed-camera shots of crowds, with mobile shots for the running battles with the police. What made you choose this style? You don’t always even hear conversations between two people.
It is a popular movement, and what I wanted to show, the subject of my film, is the people. If I start singling out individual characters—just two, three, four, five characters—it would not be the story of the people anymore. It would just be individual characters, and then we enter into the territory of personal dimensions, which wasn’t interesting for this film. That is why I chose a style that enabled me to have many characters, groups, masses of people in the frame at the same time—to observe their actions and movements.
At the same time, you do focus on certain individuals who are martyrs in the cause. So the movie does ultimately have the feel of a tribute or a memorial, because it begins with protest, and it ends with a memorial service.
The extraordinary thing here is the sacrifice that happened as part of this event. If we think about Hamlet, is it possible to think about the story of Hamlet without the death of Hamlet? The death is the fundamental moment in the story of Hamlet. Such sacrifices reveal a certain state of affairs, and reveal the situation as it is. They provoke horror, and this horror brings on some sort of revelation. What I find amazing is that human societies still require such events, such tragic sacrifices, in order to shape up as societies. The story of Maidan obviously is not at all unique, because every society has in its history moments like that, moments of sacrifice.
Freedom doesn’t come for free—there is always a price to pay for human dignity, for human rights. The question is whether the people are actually prepared to pay the price. And if they’re not prepared to pay this price, can we call them dignified humans? Do they have dignity? There’s an ancient saying, perhaps it’s Seneca: a person who lives his life without finding anything worth dying for has lived his life for nothing. So there should always be something in your life to die for. And why are we like this? Why are humans like this?
That’s a very high standard to live by.
My personal opinion is one should live one’s life in such a way that he should be prepared to die every single day. Morally prepared, so to speak.
Like the protests, the movie has a strong religious element. The priests give speeches about forgiveness and repentance, and it’s striking to see political corruption connected with evil and repentance in a religious sense. And that in turn makes the religious idea of evil much more real.
In fact, throughout the protests in Maidan, every four hours there was a religious service. The representatives of virtually all the churches that are active in Ukraine were there. It was an ecumenical situation, with everyone involved—Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Orthodox praying all together. It’s a very important aspect of the movement in Maidan that the Church supported the people. The Church was on the side of Maidan.
Maidan is also simply full of beautiful images. Everything’s very carefully composed; a lot of images look like paintings. One shot evokes the Delacroix painting Liberty Leading the People. How did you plan things out with your cinematographer?
Yes. I didn’t think about that, but everything that you watch before exists in your memory. In the beginning I shot by myself. So thank you for the compliment. [Laughs] I shot the first 45 minutes with my camera. And after that, I met the cameraman three times. I explained to him a little bit, and he shot during the day and came to me, and he understood very quickly what I needed. Because it’s a very, very concrete task. After that, he sent me all the material, and I step by step said, “This is good, this is good, this is not” and so on. A hundred hours [of material].
Could you also talk about the humor in the movie?
Ah, the humor! For example, we have this song “Vitya ciao” twice in the film, based upon the Italian popular song “Bella ciao.” Ciao means goodbye, Vitya means the President [Viktor (Vitya) Yanukovych]. And he is represented in Maidan like a clown. There were a lot of speeches made, a lot of songs, and a lot of them had these humorous or carnival elements. And there are also a lot of small things in the text, nuanced things. For example, in the film we hear someone having a conversation on the phone, and it’s obvious on the other end of the phone, they’re saying: “Where are you?” And the answer is: “Still fighting!”
You’ve also been working on a feature film, Babi Yar. Could you tell me a bit about that?
It’s about the Babi Yar massacre in 1941. I wanted to make this film in the same way I made the documentary: without any hero, with a mass of people, and just following the situation in a documentary way. To see how, slowly and gradually, people plunge into hell. Because there are already films about the Holocaust which show how it started. And nobody, or not so many people, knew how the execution of Jews started from June 1941. When Germans came into Soviet territory, they started killing Jews. And the first mass execution was in Kiev.
You continue to choose challenging material. Do you still get opposition from critics back home?
It’s the other way around. It’s not me who gets challenged or opposed by the critics. It’s the critics who are being challenged and opposed by me. They have a problem—I didn’t have a problem. [Laughs]