Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa (Maïdan, My Joy) discusses his latest non-fiction film, The Event, which received its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, during which this interview was conducted by Christopher Heron.
The Seventh Art: How did you get access to the footage for The Event?
Sergei Loznitsa: The footage belongs to an archive that exists at the Leningrad Documentary Film Studio and this studio is one of the oldest documentary film studios. It’s a state studio. It exists from 1920-21 and they have a quite big archive. I worked at that studio for ten years and I know very well the person who saved this archive. Time to time he showed me interesting pieces from that material just to think for the future. Five years ago I saw all this footage and kept it in my memory and after I made a film about the Ukraine revolution [Maïdan], I remembered this footage and thought maybe it’s better to make a film about the beginning of change in this territory. Before it was Russian empire, then it’s Soviet Union and now it’s fifteen countries, created after the putsch about which I made a film.
Did you see the footage – you said five years before? What was it about Maïdan that made you think about it again in order to go back to it?
Because I remembered my feeling was completely different when I saw this footage and when I shot during the Ukraine revolution. First of all, the people who came to the street, they came with a different purpose. When it was the Soviet Union, people didn’t understand what happens. They came because they wanted to know what was happening and what would happen next, because – I think – this putsch or coup d’état was created by the authorities. They just invite people to the street to get support from them to change power and divide the property, divide the influence in the country. But if we seriously look to that event, I can say that finally nothing changed. At the same time, people came to the street because they would like to change something in the Soviet Union because they didn’t like this kind of regime, but they were not ready to fight like in Ukraine, fighting for their freedom, because it was a different type of person. When I made The Event, I can say that my feeling – because I remember this time, I was young before, it was still in my consciousness, but I could understand maybe 10% what happens. [Laughs] My feeling now is that between the two moments in town, now and 1991, it feels like 100 years. This kind of gap, because this kind of people, they completely changed.
Do you think that’s why so many people came out? You said it was the second-largest protest after February 1917.
Yeah, it was not as many, but we can compare with life without protest during Soviet times. When the Soviet troops came to the Czech Republic, to Prague in 1968, only ten people came to express protest in Red Square. Ten. They were all punished after that, almost all were in prison. They just came to Red Square to say they were against aggression in Czech Republic, against Soviet aggression. Ten. Ten people. In 1991 it was much more.
You’ve documented protests before, so when you were looking at this footage, what did you think of how the documentary crew in 1991 were documenting the event?
I don’t know, you always have what you have. I was not a witness of what happened in Leningrad. The whole footage is only three hours… Of course, for 1991 there were few recordings made by Russian directors, but all of these films were shot in Moscow and they were shot on VHS camera… you can imagine the quality of the pictures. Or they would shoot on Betacam, it’s a little bit better, but the rest of the footage that I have seen is just news. The news choose only the most expressive part of the event, but not always can you understand what happens from this small excerpts. Now we live in another time where everybody… When I shot Maïdan in Kiev, I saw many people, who if something happened, they started shooting on their iPhone. Also ridiculous. At the same time you participate in and shoot. This is a strange relation, our relationship with video, because I always ask myself why people do it. They may never watch it, it’s strange, but we live in this kind of condition where a lot of video and picture are around us. It was a different situation in the Soviet Union around 1991, you were allowed to shoot something only if you represent the state studio. Everything is under censor. With private cameras, 16mm, you can shoot, but very simply. I know a few people, a movement but not so big, in Moscow, who were independent filmmakers. I haven’t seen much from that time, unfortunately. It’s only been 24 years, a time you remember very well.
How did you decide to have the structure where scenes would end with black leader and the Tchaikovsky playing?
I chose Tchaikovsky because… it’s remarkable now [laughs], it’s the music that tells a little bit more than music can tell. The pustch adds to this music a special political meaning, because in the morning when everyone wakes up, it was on all four channels. There were four channels in Russia, two central channels, one regional channel (Ukraine, Kazakhstan, etc.), and one from the city (I lived in Kiev, that was the local-local channel). They all transmit Swan Lake and I used the most dramatic part, a moderato, and I use a performance that is a more dramatic performance. You can play it in different ways, this one is by the conductor [Yevgeny] Svetlanov. The structure of the film is similar to my film Blockade, which was also made from found footage with the black film between episodes, because this structure can help me to divide the footage by chapters. Each one is dedicated to a different direction of the protest and helped me to manage time. I’ve used this a few times, it was not such a good DCP, because it was not black-black, but with digital you always have this problem. It’s most difficult with digital projection and digital screenings and digital recordings, getting black and white. It’s tricky, you never have black and you never have white. That’s why I prefer to have a print. This black always influence you as a spectator, it’s a black hole, you never know what’s next. It was an easy decision, because when I chose from the footage a beginning and end, everything inside was easy to construct. I tried to follow, step-by-step, history.
It’s funny that you say you don’t know when you’re watching it if it’s going to end or not because a lot of the people in the film are confused themselves. They’re asking a lot of questions, including whether Gorbachev is dead or not, they don’t know what’s going on…
[Laughs] This is funny, because there was no information. You can see how people fight for information. It is a paper with some text, which was unofficial, that was published I don’t know where, and people fight for it like food. Like a fish when you put the food in the water and they start to fight. This is interesting.
What was the process you took with getting the sound, because I know you were having difficulty with the original soundtrack?
I can say that the sound from that time maybe exists, but I couldn’t find where. [Laughs] Normally I work on the sound very carefully and long, we make a pre-mix for two, two-and-a-half months. We make a ground for the sounds, like steps – all foley effects in the studio – and also atmospheric sound, sound of the cars and city. After that, if it exists, sync sound. You can put sentences in, I was looking for sentences on YouTube, in some footage that someone put on YouTube from this time, from a different kind of meeting (there were many meetings). If somebody shot on VHS and put online, it was possible to use. I was surprised repaired it a little bit, the quality and it was quite okay. It was also interesting to know a little bit about these people’s opinion of the people from these small, short sentences. Like, “Is Gorbachev still alive?” and “I trust Yeltsin and Yeltsin trust me, that’s why I choose him.” These kinds of sentences. A very simple form, but it gets you knowledge about how people think or how they express what they think. If you know the language and its context, you get much more.
Is that why you called this an “honest protest”?
When you came to the street with what you think and what you want, with your hope… Because in that moment, in my opinion, it was a moment that was created by some people in power – the government, or I don’t know who took power in that moment – on the one side, and from the other, people support this protest because they want to change the situation in the country. I remember that you can’t openly buy vodka in the shop or for example, I remember the sugar in that time there was a special coupon for that kind of food. They calculate how many kilos of sugar you need for the month and in Soviet time, you have money and you have coupons and you have to find the place where they sell it. It was the first time when people got the feeling that they’re citizens, that they can change something, because before… I worked in that time in a cybernetic institution, a science institute and I worked as an engineer, and I remember the mood in my company. It was five thousand people with whom I worked, engineers, and I remember nobody from there was ready to go to the street and fight. Of course they can say something they didn’t like, et cetera, but the fear was also very strong. Nobody wanted to be punished, sitting in a prison.
How does this footage resonate with you today, watching it now?
If you are citizen of Russian Federation or Ukraine, it doesn’t matter, if you watch this film today it works as a film about an event 24 years ago, but as an actual film that tells about what happens now. With this film, you always have the measurement, you can measure the time now. You can say that from this distance we’ve moved far enough that in Russia, for instance, the citizens of that country can think, “Where are these people who were so brave to go to the street?” Because now, I’m not sure people even can do that without permission. In Russia, if you want to protest or you want to show that you disagree with something, you have to apply to an official organization, like a city council or something, ask permission. Otherwise, if they say no, no, you can’t do it. Today, I listened to the news and there’s a trial now where they gave a few years in prison who published on Facebook that he disagreed with Russian politics in Ukraine. Two years in prison. Can you imagine? Just for your opinion. He said his opinion, not even in the square, not in the newspaper, but just on his Facebook, which exists as a private space. Two years and this isn’t just one case, more and more it’s this process against citizens. Of course, from this perspective, you feel very sad about what happens. I think the film work in this direction.
It’s going to play in Russia?
I hope so, at the moment it’s a plan to open the documentary festival in Moscow with this film, we’ll see how it goes.
Are you planning on continuing with this found footage mode, like you have before with Blockade, or are you considering documentary or even fiction for your next work?
I’ve already shot one documentary, it’s about a different topic, the concentration camps in Germany. We’re now looking for the money now for a feature film, a French-German-Russian co-production, from Russia it’s private money. I think I will shoot in March. I have many projects, I also have an idea to make a film from archive footage from the ’30s. It’s [based on] an interesting, completely unknown archive, I was surprised when I saw one piece of footage. I know very well the history, but I understand again that Russian history or Soviet history is full of surprises. It’s an unpredictable history, let’s say. [Laughs]