- The Event [Sobytie] dir. by Sergei Loznitsa
Directed by Sergei Loznitsa
Distributed by Atoms & Void
Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa is best known to Western audiences for his feature films. His feature debut My Joy (2010) and follow-up In the Fog (2012) were both received with critical acclaim at international film festivals. Loznitsa’s documentary work has remained lesser known, but this is rapidly changing as a result of the directly political connotations of his most recent films: Maidan (2014), which documents the dramatic unfolding of the Euromaidan protests of 2013 and 2014 in Kiev, and The Event (2015), a compilation film about the anti-governmental protests that took place in Leningrad during the attempted coup d’état of August 1991. These films also exemplify the two distinct approaches that define Loznitsa’s work as a documentary filmmaker. Motivated by a drive to bear witness, to document, revisit and relive both past and present, the director, on one hand, makes films that silently observe and document the present, such as Portrait (2002) and Maidan. On the other hand, Loznitsa re-examines the past and its representation through montage of archival film, s in films such as Blockade (2005), about the siege of Leningrad, and Revue (2008). The Event falls into this latter category.
The August 1991 coup d’état was instigated by a group of Communist Party hardliners, who strongly opposed the program of far-reaching reforms, or perestroika, implemented by Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. After being met with intense civil resistance and claiming three lives, the coup collapsed after only two days. Notwithstanding, the events are commonly thought to have contributed toward the collapse of the Soviet Union in a major way. The images of military standoff and tanks rolling through the streets of Moscow are engraved into collective memory. However, the fact that half a million people gathered on Leningrad’s Palace Square in protest to the coup has largely been forgotten. With the television showing Swan Lake on repeat, as was customary in the Soviet Union at times of political upheaval, Loznitsa shows how people took to the streets to gather information from other sources. Drawing upon footage that was shot in Leningrad by local cameramen, Loznitsa provides us [End Page 86] with a never-before-seen view into civilian resistance beyond the Soviet capital.
Just like Maidan, which The Event is clearly intended to complement, the film’s object of investigation is civil protest. Indeed, Loznitsa has stated in interviews that he came across the footage some years earlier, but felt that the events in Ukraine invested them with particular significance. By revisiting the past, Loznitsa thus seeks to gain understanding about when, why, and how large masses of people choose to gather and defy the political structure and demand change. The political immediacy of the film’s subject is reinforced by how the images of barricades, banners, and speeches reverberate with images of the highly mediatized protest movements of recent years. At times, the past feels particularly “present” in The Event, through repeated references to fascism (one of the pervasively used terms with regard to the recent conflict in Ukraine). The intensity of the protest, however, is rather different. As they are mobilized in protest, the Leningrad crowds are still predominantly passively awaiting what will happen next. They are uncertain, hesitant, and clearly lacking in previous protesting experience. The inclusion of Viktor Tsoi’s emblematic perestroika song “We are waiting for change” in the soundtrack is highly suggestive here.
What is particularly distinctive about the film is the fact that Loznitsa refrains from singling out a main hero and forgoes on overlaid narration or interviews. All cues about what is going on derive from in situ sound recordings and minimal title cards that indicate the main events. While certainly not devoid of a political message, Loznitsa thus refrains from applying an interpretative frame throughout, instead letting the viewers reach their own conclusions. To a certain extent, the film even mimics the experience of the people we see on the screen: the viewer hears what they would be able...