Jewish Sexual Pathology, Islamist Terror, and the Collapse of the West at Cannes
The French film festival goes raw on depictions of incest, murder, DSK, Ukraine, Timbuktu, and stardom
If the beautifully shot and stylized political violence in Timbuktu, which proceeds according to internally cohesive aesthetic predicates, leaves one uncomfortably mesmerized, then Eau Argentée, Syrie Autoportrait (Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait), by the exiled Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed, will simply horrify. The film shows us the effects of a more singularly substantial assault against the structures of civilization. The film is stitched together from 1,001 bits of amateur video and grainy cellphone clips taken off of YouTube. The visceral, even unspeakable brutality of the film—we watch men die from summary executions, running crowds are machine-gunned, cameras are stuck inside festering sniper wounds to the head, and we watch authentic footage of a teenage boy being beaten and anally raped with a baton in a prison cell—calls for a reiteration of the caveat, not meant for the weak of heart or of stomach. Mohammed, who moved to Paris in 2011, frames his feelings of loss and survivor’s guilt through a discourse of loss and spatial displacement, an overwrought form of poeticized commentary, and letters to his girlfriend. This is no doubt a cultural form and a civilizational narrative norm and is certainly a matter of taste. For myself I found it to be a manifestation of insufferable treacle, and I imagine that many other people might as well. After the screening one is liable to feel the oncoming symptoms of PTSD.
Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan narrates the key events in the three-month-long encamped protests at Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) that brought down the kleptocratic regime of Pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovich in February. Classified as a “special screening” and eagerly awaited by both politicos and cineastes, it was a prominent feature in the program. Belorussian-born Loznitsa was raised in Kiev and is currently Ukraine’s most celebrated filmmaker. (This is of course not counting national treasure Kira Muratova, who will be turning 80 years old this year in Odessa.) Maidan is Loznitsa’s third film and the first since 2012’s hazily ruminative WWII occupation drama V Tumane (In the Fog). That film interrogated friendship, complicity, and collective memory, and one only wishes that more people in the West had gotten a chance to watch it. Loznitsa suspended production work on his forthcoming film about the Nazi massacres at Babi Yar in Kiev to spend time filming the demonstrations.
The selection of his film for inclusion in Cannes from among all the innumerable existing and imminent Maidan documentaries might at first glance seem to be a rather unimaginative choice. For this critic personally, any lingering apprehensions about whether the film would have been programmed under another director’s name were quickly defused by an appreciation of the former mathematician’s meticulous adhesion to formalist constraints.
Employing tricks and visual vocabulary borrowed from Russian Formalism as well as the shot compositions of the crowd scenes from Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925), Loznitsa purposefully placed cameras around the periphery of the Maidan. The resulting static frame envelopes the viewer in broadly composed and openly apportioned spaces. The film commences with a wide shot of the activists’ stirring rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem, and then the camera follows the fraternal spirit of total mobilization that sprang up in the Maidan in the midst of the December frost. We watch the bustle of political activity—jovial speeches, public poetry recitals, festive organizational meetings—as well as the veritable anthill of domestic activity that developed spontaneously to help with the upkeep of the city-within-a city. The crowd moves in and out of view of the screen, following its own inscrutable logic. Men drape themselves in flags, and volunteers brew tea and ferry sandwiches. The young build barricades while babushkas ladle soup.
Each of the film’s segments is about five to 10 minutes in length and depending on one’s tastes is either mesmerizingly or agonizingly slow. A few minimalist black titles provide basic information: With parliament’s introduction of a batch of repressive anti-protest laws on Jan. 19, the women, children, and babushkas all suddenly disappear, to be replaced by men dressed in secondhand army fatigues and gas masks. Bonfires and piles of sandbags replace the boxes and detritus of the original fortifications. Clashes begin to erupt as packs of demonstrators glide gracefully in and out of our sightline to let loose rhythmic volleys of cobblestones against the metal of the shields of the detested Berkut riot police. Segment by segment, and day by day, we watch the ratcheting up of the conflict. Skirmishes turn into bloody battles as the protesters exchange cobblestones for Molotov cocktails. The Berkut graduate from batons to water cannon, to teargas grenades, and finally to rubber bullets. Civil war has broken out in the central streets of Kiev.
The camera’s one capitulation against the film’s core constraint of immobility comes when the cameraman is bombarded by teargas canisters and must flee along with the rest of the crowd. By the time of Feb. 19 segment (when the demonstrators marched on parliament), the interior ministry troops are called in and given criminal orders. The camera’s vantage point is shifted to a bird’s-eye view, and we find ourselves perched above the action on a hill. This scene is founded on the widest shot of the whole film, and in the distant right corner of the screen we see the columns of Berkut and interior ministry troops firing into the crowd with shotguns and Kalashnikov rifles. Wafting ethereally from a loudspeaker is the voice of an unflappable demonstrator appealing for reinforcements to be sent to one street and for ambulances to another: At this point we feel ourselves to be in the center of the carnage viscerally, of a sniper nest on the top floor of the Hotel Ukraina. We are appealed to converge at the makeshift operating room set up in the trade union building if we have medical training. “We have pushed the Berkut back into the park along Grushevskaya street, we have our first tactical victory!”
After a slow blackout, we are given scenes of the crowd weeping and mourning. In a funeral scene set at night and illuminated by candles and cellular phones, the caskets of the “heavenly hundred”—the hundred activists killed in the bloodbath—are passed over the heads of the crowd. The film ends with a haunting rendition of the folk ballad “Plyve kacha po tysyni,” which concerns a young Ukrainian soldier asking his mother what will happen if he dies in a foreign land.
The former French foreign minister and storied humanitarian interventionist Bernard Kouchner attended the press screening of the film and sat with me chatting about the politics of the upcoming election (we had both flown into Cannes from Kiev after attending the New Republic’s “Ukraine: Thinking Together” solidarity conference several days earlier). Mr. Kouchner was visibly entranced at the conclusion of the film’s screening: “At the beginning, the movie is a bit slow and boring,” he told me. “But after that it becomes remarkable. The director does not comment, he shows the crowd to be one organism.”
After the screening, journalists and onlookers crowded into the terraced back yard of the Ukrainian pavilion for Maidan’s press conference. The plucky staff of the Ukrainian pavilion had brought gas masks and a miniature reproduction of the Maidan Christmas tree from Kiev and decorated it with a nationalist flair. With a week to go before presidential elections that would elevate chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko to the presidency, Ukraine’s guests were treated to handfuls of his Roshen chocolate. After the standard questions about the film were fielded, a journalist for the Russian opposition TV channel Dozhd (Rain) inquired why Loznitsa was boycotting the Russian media or press, even very liberal ones (on the verge of being closed down) such as themselves. Loznitza replied to the effect that there was so much disinformation and propaganda being bandied about the Russian media sphere that he simply did not want to be involved. The journalist did not look satisfied with the explanation for the boycott.
The director wrapped up the conference with a pledge to upload the film to the Internet, after a brief theatrical release, so that the movie could be seen by everyone who might not otherwise have access. The final riposte was bellowed from the back of the overflowing crowd. “Sergei Vladimirovich!” a middle-aged woman from Russia called out. “You should do that quickly! While there is still an Internet in some countries!”
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