A year on, it is still difficult to understand exactly how the Maidan protests in Ukraine turned so violent. The vast majority of those standing on the Maidan in Kyiv, from December 2013 to February 2014, protesting against the Yanukovych government’s geopolitical orientation and its continuing abuse of the rights and freedoms of Ukrainian citizens, were ordinary people with no interest in engaging in violence. Nevertheless, at the end of February last year, the protests turned from a mass expression of peaceful solidarity into something resembling the set for an apocalyptic film.
Yet the burning barricades were not props: they were real, and so too were the bullets, the blood, and the bodies. The documentary film All Things Ablaze, by Oleksandr Techynskyi, Aleksei Solodunov, and Dmitry Stoikov, tackles precisely this catastrophic moment – when mass protest turns violent. In this sense, the film exposes the ambivalent nature of popular revolt.
The film tackles the catastrophic moment when mass protest turns violent.
Witnessing from the middle of the fire
All Things Ablaze is not strictly about ‘Maidan’ as such, that is, about Kyiv’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) – the heart of the protests last year. The film moves away from the square, dwelling instead on the streets nearby. It was these streets that witnessed the most violent clashes between police and protesters, which did not spread into the main epicentre of protest. Using a fast-moving handheld camera, the filmmakers follow the chaotic movements of the protesters on one side of the ‘frontline’ of the clashes, and the various police units on the other. Everything is shot at close quarters, sometimes extremely close, and only occasionally from higher, wider vantage points.
With this cinematographic choice, the film stands in sharp contrast to Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary Maidan, which won plaudits on the international festival circuit in late 2014, and which focuses mainly on the square and the variety of people who constituted the hive of worker bees at the heart of the ‘Revolution of Dignity’. Loznitsa showed the bustle of the protest camps, the kitchens, the makeshift dorms, and the improvised urban folklore of street art, poetry, music, and performance. But, unlike the makers of All Things Ablaze, Loznitsa used lengthy mid-range static shots, which seemed almost removed, even passive, in the face of what is taking place in front of the camera. Loznitsa’s camera stands back and allows the slow, often mundane drama that most of the protesters experienced, to play out at its own pace.
The subtitle of All Things Ablaze ‘Witnessing from the middle of the fire’, captures what the filmmakers achieved with their footage. The film features fast-moving sequences of running, scuffles, attacks, and retreats, beatings, people throwing rocks, fireworks and Molotov cocktails, and shooting from a range of firearms, from air rifles to handguns. Where the majestic banality characteristic of Loznitsa’s film lulls the viewer into an admiration of the broad cross-section of Ukrainian society standing on the square, the impression left by the adrenaline-fuelled young men of All Things Ablaze is disquieting. The violent acts they engage in seem to come from pure rage, rather than political concerns.
The impression left by the adrenaline-fuelled young men of All Things Ablaze is disquieting
The chaos portrayed in All Things Ablaze is all consuming: the police and riot troops clearly lack leadership, have little understanding of the situation, and simply do not know what to do. A conversation between two men from the Interior Troops is overheard as they guard the road towards the Verkhovna Rada building, Ukraine’s parliament: ‘what a fucking weekend’, says one. ‘Yeah, Sunday’, answers the other. The police look young, naïve, and mostly reluctant to fight. Their opponents, the young revolutionaries, seem equally naïve and at times comically inept, repeatedly, accidentally setting themselves on fire with Molotov cocktails.
A still from 'All Things Ablaze'. Image via Oleksandr Techynskyi, Aleksey Solodunov, Dmitry Stoykov (C)
One of the most fascinating and disturbing scenes in All Things Ablaze – a brief respite from the street battles – features the aftermath of the destruction of the Lenin monument, which had stood in central Kyiv since 1946. Once again, the film skips the Maidan itself, taking the viewer to the opposite end of Khreshchatyk (central Kyiv’s main street), where a crowd takes photos and makes jokes about the toppled dictator. Yet underneath the lightheartedness of the scene there is a sense of a manic, almost desperate side of the carnival as those at the front of the crowd rather over-enthusiastically wield a sledge hammer: as each lump is chipped off, a forest of out-stretched hands clambers for a piece of history.
While the eager crowd reduces the leader of a previous revolution to rubble, a bewildered-looking older man grabs hold of the half mutilated statue and refuses to let go. This sequence raises the most emblematic question of the whole protest movement: whose revolution is this? The older man reproaches the crowd: ‘coming to a strange city and overturning monuments is barbarism!’ A young woman standing nearby retorts: ‘I am from Kyiv’. Another man adds: ‘you are the only one like this left in the whole city, in the whole country’. Outnumbered, the man is taken away by medics.
The dialogue described here, as in much of the film, is in Russian. Many people overheard during the film (and these are mainly the ‘revolutionaries’) switch back and forth between Russian and Ukrainian – often halfway through sentences. For instance, one protester shouts out, ‘This is the sweet taste of freedom!’ in Russian, before immediately adding in Ukrainian, ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ This subtlety will be missed by viewers depending on subtitles, which is a shame, as it dispels simplistic assumptions, common in the West, about the correspondence of language choice and (geo) political orientation in Ukraine.
One sequence raises the most emblematic question of the whole protest movement: whose revolution is this?
A sobering reminder
While All Things Ablaze contains some truly astonishing footage, and makes for powerful viewing, it is decidedly lacking in contextual information about that footage. In this sense, it shares common ground with Loznitsa’s Maidan. Neither film is interested in exploring the socio-political complexities of the events they represent. Both films feel more like gut reactions than perceptive analyses. The direct, unmediated nature of the films gives the impression that, with events so fresh in the memory, with their consequences still in full swing, and the outcome of the whole process uncertain, the directors feel unable to give fuller commentaries. Things are still too raw to be understood, and can only be recalled in striking series of images.
This shortcoming, however, does not mean that these films have nothing to say. It is simply that what they want to say is of a more general nature. Techynskyi, Solodunov, and Stoykov suggest that their film should be seen in the wider context of the ‘universal pattern of a particular kind of uprisings – those ones that end with bloodshed.’ Loznitsa, meanwhile, states in interviews that he has deliberately tried to avoid specifics and give a more general picture of a protest as being part of the processes of historical change.
Such an approach is, of course, the prerogative of the filmmakers. But the lack of background, depth, and context inevitably means that neither Maidan nor All Things Ablaze can tell us much about what happened in Ukraine last winter. Both films are important in their own way, documenting what things looked like, how they felt, and in the case of All Things Ablaze, in highlighting the disturbing nature of the actions of those engaged in violence on both sides. The uninitiated viewer, however, and especially the foreign viewer for whom these films are undoubtedly intended, at least in part, will learn next to nothing about why the Maidan protests happened and what they meant.
Yet the films may well have a different impact at home, especially All Things Ablaze. The nature and meaning of the protests are increasingly being appropriated in order to turn the tragedy of the deaths of more than one hundred young people into a romanticized, heroic myth for a new Ukraine. It is telling that both films close with the funerals of young men who were caught up in the violent clashes, and some of whom paid the highest price for their willingness to fight. While Maidan, characteristically, retains a calm distance from these events, focusing on the stage and the crowd, All Things Ablaze plunges us into the crowd, close enough to hear the weeping of mourning relatives, whose loved ones are carried along by many anonymous hands as chants of ‘Glory to the heroes!’ resound.
There is no doubt that there is a great deal to admire in the bravery and dignity of the majority of those protesting last year in Kyiv – shown so effectively by Loznitsa. This should, on the whole, be our dominant memory of the Maidan. Likewise, there is no doubt that the burden of guilt for the escalation in, and cynical use of premeditated violence must remain with the authorities. Nevertheless, as All Things Ablaze demonstrates, there was also a ragged fringe to the protests whose extreme actions had an impact far outweighing their numbers. Of course, dismissing these young people as extremists and hooligans, and thus ignoring the factors that may have driven some of them to these actions (the use of extreme violence by the authorities being key), is too easy. Their motivations were distinctly more complex.
But at the same time, we should also be careful about idealising their actions. All Things Ablaze reminds us that violence is not romantic, and that the deaths it causes are not heroic. They are horrific, and tragic.
All Things Ablaze is screening at the Frontline Club, London via OpenCityDocs on 6 February. For more information, visit www.frontlineclub.com/all-things-ablaze.