Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 04, 2016 3:41 pm 
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Waiting for democracy that never comes

Sergei Loznitsa is a Russian documentary filmmaker who reached greatest festival currency through two recent fiction features: his violently arresting but ultimately incoherent road picture "My Joy (NYFF 2010) and his moody content-light 1942 occupation drama In the Fog (SFIFF 2012). Here, in The Event, he returns to documentary with a collection, at once momentous and opaque (there is no narration) of archival found-footage from the August 1991 coup d'état attempt or putsch that ended the Soviet regime assembled from materials supplied by the Saint Petersburg Documentary Film Studio.

From the start we hear the strains of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" because that was what played on the interrupted state-owned TV and radio channels instead of news broadcasts at this time. It heightens our sense of the mystification or obliviousness of the Russian public whose faces we see gathered around in Leningrad, shot by eight different roving cameras that move among them and look down on them. This is material that is immensely suggestive and atmospheric, but what it means depends on what you bring to it. Loznitsa provides no background knowledge, such as that the tipping point was a planned August 20th treaty signing away a lot of Moscow's centralized power to the individual states. A group including the VP, premier, KGB head and Defense Minister calling itself the General Committee on the State Emergency had taken over to prevent this, and put Gorbachev under state arrest.

The footage that unreels was shot in the aftermath that left things is a state of flux for three days. Protestors gathered around Moscow's White House to defend the stronghold of democratic opposition led by Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia. Gorbachev, president of the USSR is in his dacha in the Crimea and being reported too sick to rule. The people are seen in very consistent looking, rather attractive grayish black and white photographic images, lightly dressed for the summer weather, all ages, occasionally young and tanned, standing, perch high, milling about or occasionally marching, some of them setting up barricades to block a possible military takeover or raising signs or banners -- "Down with the putsch! We are all on strike!" and listening to de facto broadcasts on portable radios, scrambling for printed declarations. They are listening to speeches from steps, entrances, or balconies about what is happening, especially during the last of the Emergency Committee's three-day reign, when Leningrad mayor Anatoly Sobchak is heard from. Some wait outside government buildings for news. Thousands gather outside in the big central Palace Square of Leningrad where most of what is on this film takes place.

The events we're watching in these films are at once tumultuous -- there is a sense that 73 years of Soviet rule are coming to an end, and there are chants of "Down with communism!" -- and quiet -- and curiously ambiguous. What is, or will be, the outcome of all this? There is no violence or shouting. The crowds are remarkably well behaved, exhibiting a mixture of apprehension and optimism. There is no repression; hardly a policeman or military officer is in sight. One may think of the Arab Spring of recent years, and the events in Tahrir Square in Cairo. But here there is not the tumult and excitement of Cairo, the shouting and open debate, nor the violence and danger, more the air of watching and listening, waiting to see what is happening. And what is happening, they hardly know. They cheer both for the downfall of the Soviet government and the removal of the lawless stagers of the would-be coup. It's announced that there has been a vote, and the Soviet flag is taken down and the tricolor banner of Russia put in its place. There is talk of "democracy." There are memories of 1917, and of 1964, cited as two momentous, perhaps infamous, times. And Vladimir Putin, now the dictator in charge of post-Soviet Russia, is briefly seen, this time a new member of the Saint Petersburg administration after years working with the KGB. x

Consultation of Russian and Soviet history might help viewers to add more meaning to what they are watching. I have made use of a Wikipedia article on the Brezhnev era and the reviews of the film by Jay Weissberg in Variety and Peter Debruge in Hollywood Reporter, both of whom elucidate this film through their own knowledge and researches. The fact remains that without external knowledge not provided by the film, the film means little. With its blackouts between segments filled by "Swan Lake," the film flows smoothly. Perhaps its most artful editing is a passage near the end where alternating clips make it look like Putin, who's just gotten into a car, may be pursued by police with wailing sirens (or part of a power motorcade?).

The constant flowing movement of the cameras might make one think in passing of a famous Russian film from eleven years later, Sokurov's 2002 single-shotRussian Ark, and there is something haunting and mysterious about these endless, eternally milling crowds.

Loznitsa's 2014 documentary Maidan examined the recent conflict in Ukraine.

The Event/событие (Sobytie), 73 mins., debuted at Venice 2 Sept. 2015, Toronto 15 Sept., theatrical release in the Netherlands 10 Mar. 2016; SFIFF showing 24 Apr. 2016; screened for this review as part of SFIFF.

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