Inside ‘Maidan’: Sergei Loznitsa on His Ukrainian Uprising Doc and Putin’s ‘Fascist’ Regime

On the eve of Sunday’s presidential elections in Ukraine, Richard Porton sat down with celebrated Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa at Cannes to discuss his documentary and the state of his home country.

Stoyan Nenov/Reuters

On Wednesday, the great Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa came to Cannes to screen his latest film—a documentary entitled Maidan that chronicles the resistance to the corrupt regime of Ukraine’s former president, Victor Yanukovych. Employing an observational style that encourages spectators to relive the events of the Ukrainian Revolution, the film charts the protests’ trajectory from the initial exhilaration of the occupation of Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, a.k.a. Independence Square, to the brutal repression of demonstrators that ended with the deaths of an estimated 77 people in February 2014.

Although Loznitsa started his career as a documentarian, he is best known for My Joy, his searing debut feature that was one of the highlights of the 2010 Cannes competition. Loznitsa returned to Cannes in 2012 with In the Fog, his second feature and another competition entry.

The Daily Beast met Loznitsa on Thursday at Cannes’s Ukrainian Pavilion for a wide-ranging conversation that highlighted his vehement opposition to Vladimir Putin’s ideological mindset, as well as his hopes for the future of Ukraine as presidential elections scheduled for Sunday dominate the headlines in the international press.

How would you characterize the Ukrainian uprising of 2013-2014? What are the similarities—and differences—between what happened on the Maidan and other occupations and insurrections that have occurred all over the word during the course of the past few years?

There were three aspects to the Ukrainian Revolution. First, it was basically an anti-colonial revolution. Russia is of course the colonizer and there was a sort of “mental revolution” against Russian power. You can also see this recently because of events in Eastern Ukraine. They’re very much influenced by Russia. If there hadn’t been this Russian influence, there wouldn’t be anything going on in the eastern part of Ukraine.

Second, there was an anti-Soviet revolution because, in general, we didn’t have an anti-Soviet revolution in the USSR. The country just collapsed. But there wasn’t a political revolt. We didn’t have the Soviet equivalents of the Nuremburg trials. De-communization never happened. The Communist Party still exists and is legal in Ukraine. One of the issues facing the new government is whether to ban the Communist Party. During the Maidan campaign, many monuments paying tribute to Lenin were destroyed.

The third revolution was ideological. Under the Soviet regime, people preferred to delegate power and decision-making to others—Stalin, for example. Now people realize that it’s important for them to take control over their own lives. From this point of view, the European mentality is shifting eastward.

At your press conference yesterday, you referred to Russian disinformation concerning the Ukrainian situation. Do you think much of this disinformation involves the regime, particularly Vladimir Putin, overemphasizing the participation of the “Right Sector” and the supposed domination of fascist elements in the events of Maidan and its aftermath?

Yes, absolutely. They manipulate people’s fears to misinterpret the events and paint as dark a picture as possible of what’s going on the Ukraine. One example is that the Russian media refers to the Ukrainian interim government as a “junta.” Junta is usually a term that refers to what goes on in Latin American countries. Or what ensued in Greece in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The word refers of course to a military takeover and it’s not appropriate at all. It works very well as an ideological cliché. People know the word from Soviet times.

The Russians refer to fascists in Ukraine. As you know, fascism technically existed only in Italy. It’s a form of government that involves corporations fusing with the State. Let’s make an experiment. If you open the Soviet Encyclopedia—which was sort of a Soviet equivalent of the Encyclopedia Britannica—you’ll find a definition of fascism. There are supposedly six characteristics of fascism. At least five of these six characteristics of fascism (e.g. persecution of non-governmental institutions, persecution of minorities etc.) pertain to Putin’s regime!

All the newspapers have recently reported Putin’s alliances with right-wing authoritarians.

Yes, of course. But, because, these clichés exist in people’s minds, the Russians can manipulate the debate very efficiently. They use words from the Soviet past and misapply them to the current situation.

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So you’d say that the Putin government is, to a certain extent, the continuation of the Soviet regime under another name.

Of course. When the Soviet Union fell, there was no equivalent of the Marshall Plan. The Western countries tried to give economic support to the ex-Communist countries and involve them in their sphere of influence. They didn’t do one important thing— they didn’t stage Nuremberg-style trials. The regime, which was very similar to the German Third Reich, was never put on trial. Most people thereby retained the ideas of Soviet times because the population never reflected upon the lessons that could have been learned from that experience.

The recent arrest of the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov by the Russian Secret Service seems like a continuation of the harassment of dissidents that occurred during the Soviet era.

Yes, it’s done to scare people. It’s part of a terror campaign and it’s absolutely necessary to talk about it every day to remind people that he’s in prison.

So there will be an international campaign to release him?

Yesterday, the German Film Fund issued a statement. The Moscow Film Festival is in June and it’s a good opportunity to make a statement by not attending it. I wouldn’t advise anyone to travel to Russia, where an innocent filmmaker has been detained for no reason at all! It’s just not safe. If it can happen to Sentsov, it can happen to anyone. I don’t think any director would want to present their film in Moscow knowing that a fellow filmmaker is sitting in a prison cell.

Do you think there’s now an effort in Russia to harass people in the arts?

I don’t know if there’s a special campaign to target people in the arts. So far, there’s only one filmmaker. But a theater director and an actor were also recently arrested. It doesn’t make sense, because there’s no reason to arrest theater directors or filmmakers. They don’t pose any threat. The majority of them are actually quite conformist. For example, when Putin initiated his campaign in Crimea, most of the prominent figures in the arts in Russia signed a letter supporting him.

Did Nikita Mikhalkov, the Russian director known as a Putin supporter, sign?

Mikhalkov didn’t sign, but he issued his own statement of support.

I read that when your film My Joy was strongly attacked by some critics when it was released in Russia.

Yes, the reaction was very polarized. People were divided into two camps. There’s an episode in that film that would almost trigger a schizophrenic attack in anyone who still adheres to a Soviet mentality. The scene that triggered the most violent reaction involves two Soviet soldiers who desert from the front. During the night, they come to a small village and arrive at a house where a schoolteacher lives with his son. The teacher and his son take them in and feed them and allow them to spend the night. Then they have a conversation during supper. It turns out that this teacher is looking forward to the Germans taking over. This teacher says that the wretched Soviet regime will vanish and life will return to normal. As a result of this conversation, these two Soviet deserters shoot the teacher. So what happens to a Soviet brain when confronted with this kind of narrative? At first, there is sympathy for the deserters and for the teachers. The moment the teacher utters the sentence about the Germans bringing life back to normal, sympathy shifts exclusively to the deserters. Yet when they brutally shoot the teacher with his little son watching, they realize that it’s not a good thing to shoot him in his sleep. Nevertheless, those with a Soviet mentality believe that they would have done the same thing. At that moment, their brains exploded! That’s the way the Soviet brain works.

How important do you think the Ukrainian elections on Sunday the 25th will be?

It’s very important that these elections happen. I think they will go ahead, since the West has advised Russia to not do anything to disrupt them. It doesn’t matter that much who will be elected. Anyone who’s elected will be much more attentive to the people, because their influence will be stronger. It will be dangerous for any politician to try to abuse their power. Any new leader will have to follow the missives of the people, because the military and Russians won’t defend him they way they defended Yanukovych.

Finally, a question about aesthetics instead of politics. Unlike many conventional documentary films, there’s no voiceover narration or interviews in Maidan. Why do you prefer a purely observational approach that immerses the viewer in the events on the Maidan without any commentary?

Unlike most documentaries, Maidan has a style. When I embark upon a film, I design a set of rules and create the film according to these rules. If the concept of the film revolves around masses of people, then the aesthetic of the film has to reflect this desire to depict masses of people. If I don’t use voiceover or commentary, I have to find a way to make spectators understand what’s going on. This means that the camera has to be static and I have to include some explanatory inter-titles. If I want to plunge the spectator into this event—and make him almost part of the event—it then means that I have to use long takes. This is the way that the structure of the film is built.

When I start a new film, I always have an overall concept and certain rules that I must adhere to. I also take a lot of care with the sound design. I try to design the sound so it includes an implied commentary about what’s going on in the film’s images. While you don’t see politicians making speeches in Maidan, you do have the speeches of the people explaining their desires. So it’s sort of vox populi. The sound of course is carefully designed that way. You don’t have direct sound. It’s a very complicated mix with over a hundred tracks. So, from this point of view, it’s not really a conventional documentary film in the journalistic sense.