This year, the program of the BFI London Film Festival contained two Ukrainian films: "Maidan" directed by Sergei Loznitsa and "The Tribe" by Myroslav Slaboshpyts’kyi. Both films are set in Ukraine and were filmed during the same period: October/November 2013 to March 2014. Both films tell stories filled with violence. They raise universal questions of dignity, fear, love, hatred, justice, and its absence. Both films deserve attention, and are collecting awards at international festivals.
Loznitsa and Slaboshpyts’kyi must have hoped for this sort of international success of their films and probably imagined Western viewers as the potential consumers of their art. Interestingly, both directors have chosen similar approaches to tell their stories: a minimum of words, spoken or written.
Loznitsa offers a chronicle of the Ukrainian protests with no voice over and infrequent title cards containing only the most basic information. "Maidan" is reminiscent of the footage seen on hromadske.tv or other websites that streamed live from the Maidan square, presenting footage where something is always going on, but it is not exactly clear what, neither to the demonstrators themselves, nor to the camera operators, nor or to those who are watching the footage. Static medium shots, shot in real time, and therefore uncomfortably long, produce a sensation of being present on the Maidan along with the protestors. Placing the camera in the queue for tea or sandwiches in the Maidan kitchen, Loznitsa positions the audience among the demonstrators, forcing them to listen to extracts of passing conversations in order to try and grasp at least some sense of what is happening around.
The lack of clear explanations of the events on screen may effectively reproduce the experience of being in the crowd. But viewers who either attended the protests or followed them closely in the media will by now have the benefit of in-depth knowledge of the wider context. For viewers who were not part of the protests (in Ukraine or abroad) and did not spend many a night reading and watching the news from Ukraine, Loznitsa’s interesting shots of colourful "characters" of the Maidan remain just that: interesting pictures. The violence, which increased as the events unfolded, in the film very quickly turns into incomprehensible chaos. It is hard to be persuaded that this approach to telling the story of the Maidan protests is the most appropriate, in particular for the screening of the film at international festivals. The stylized portrayal of the events that have come to be known as a "revolution of dignity" not only fail to tell the story and explain the significance of the Maidan, but, despite the focus on the actual crowds of demonstrators throughout the film, fail to convey the emotional intensity of the events that only increased over the three months of the protests.
Those members of the audience who came to the screening with some knowledge of the events left partly impressed by the selection of footage, remarkable in its stillness which seems more akin to photography than film, and partly disappointed by the over-stylization of presentation. Those who came to learn about the Maidan left not only with no greater understanding of the events, but possibly more confused even about the basic facts of the Ukrainian protests. To them, the incomprehensible "East" with its commonplace violence, people in grey coats and fur hats, who, when they are not singing their national anthem are listening to horrible pop music on the central square of the capital city, remained just as incomprehensible as before watching "Maidan."
Slaboshpyts’kyi’s "The Tribe," just like Loznitsa’s "Maidan," forced the audience to look and listen hard. The entire dialogue of the film is in the Ukrainian version of sign language. Although this language will be understood only partially by viewers with hearing impairments outside Ukraine and, with the exception of certain gestures that are used by people not familiar with the sign language, will be entirely incomprehensible to the wider audience, many scenes did not require translation and the feeling of the "foreignness" of the language disappeared very quickly. The director’s deliberate choice not to use subtitles, however, came at a price: the original dialogue had to be simplified and stylized. One wonders if the "gimmick" of not using the subtitles justifies the simplification of sign language to suit the needs of the general public.
In spite of these not entirely justified, but nevertheless curious features, as well as the impressive acting of the non-professional actors, the film in many respects resembles an ordinary chernukha, portraying a "wild East" where daily life is packed with violence and ... well, in fact, not much else; even love is depicted by Slaboshpyts’kyi as full of violence. The director claims that his film is neither about deaf people nor about Ukraine, but about the universal feelings of love and hatred. The film, however, is undoubtedly both about Ukraine and about deaf people. It makes no sense to deny the deliberate choice of the director to set his story in traditionally bleak post-Soviet urban spaces, with their dilapidated buildings and glowering inhabitants. Although he claims the film "is not about deaf people" Slaboshpyts’kyi is clearly interested in portraying some of the most primitive aspects of human nature and for this he choses a community that is among the most marginalized in Ukraine (and more generally).
Exoticization in "The Tribe" applies not only to the society it shows, but also specifically to gender in this context. The machismo of the teenage boys is overwhelming. When he is not drinking or making phallic objects in his woodwork classes, the main male character (like most men in the film) is either fighting with other teenagers (sometimes for fun), working as a pimp or having (usually brutal) sex. Almost without exception the women in the film (also teenagers) are represented as objects of (sexual) violence. For much of the film the main female character is naked and the audience’s attention is focused almost exclusively on her body: if we are not watching her having sex (usually for money), we are observing her undergo a termination of pregnancy in a graphically explicit scene, or urinating while doing her pregnancy test. These voyeuristic scenes make up the core of "The Tribe." One could explain this as simply representation of brutal reality, but the line between social commentary and aestheticization of violence in the film is seriously blurred. As with the simplification of the sign language, the 130-minute showcasing of violence and victimised sexualised teenagers has no obvious justification.
Judging from this year's Ukrainian participation in the London Film Festival it seems that the most popular Ukrainian cinematic export remains the exotic incomprehensibility and violence of the "wild East." What gives considerable hope is that both films are of reasonable quality and both directors certainly seem capable of producing work in future that will do more than simply aim to satisfy the craving of Western audiences for eastern European gloom and doom.