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Soviet history through the eyes of the people

by Elijah Bukreev November 17, 2015
Soviet history through the eyes of the people

Sergey Loznitsa’s The Event is like few documentaries you’ve seen

In December of 1991, the U.S.S.R. was officially dissolved. Before that happened however, in August of the same year, several senior government officials attempted to overthrow Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and take the country off the course of dissolution. In his new documentary titled The Event, Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa turned the camera not on the coup itself but on the people of St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was known at the time.

The flag of the Russian Federation was raised on Aug. 21, 1991.

The flag of the Russian Federation was raised on Aug. 21, 1991.

This is another film screened by the Montreal International Documentary Festival to challenge the popular conception of a documentary. The Event is the kind of film Alfred Hitchcock used to call pure cinema. “Pure cinema,” as said by Hitchcock in a 1963 interview with Peter Bogdanovich, “is complementary pieces of film put together, like notes of music make a melody.”

The Event consists of previously unseen footage shot for the most part at public gatherings. As it opens, the viewer is dropped right in the middle of one. No historical context is given, no narrator provided. The film takes the perspective of a regular citizen, a silent pair of eyes in the crowd, and documents the situation as the people of St. Petersburg experienced it—through proclamations and portable radio devices.

People of St. Petersburg watched the flag being raised above the city.

People of St. Petersburg watched the flag being raised above the city.

Loznitsa uses elaborate sound design to illustrate the confusion felt by the Russian people. A variety of voices, likely belonging to passers-by, provide comment or remark on the situation. “They say Gorbachev is dead,” says one voice. “Is Yeltsin alive?” asks another. To hear “down with communism” is chilling—for much of the U.S.S.R.’s history, these words simply could not be said. To see the Soviet flag come down is equally powerful.

There is at the heart of the film an interesting contrast—the fact that the viewer is made to feel like a participant gives the film a sense of immediacy, while the fact that the footage is black and white directly sets it in the past. The result is close to time travel—you find yourself transported into a historical event as it is happening, with some added knowledge of the future. You see thousands of people gathering to reclaim their country, and then for a split second you notice a young Vladimir Putin—the mayor’s aide in 1991—and you know their hopes will be trampled on by history.

An ironic use of music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake underlines the director’s sourness at the fact that this event, which ended with the coup being thwarted and was seen as a victory at the time, would eventually lead nowhere. Loznitsa’s film is in some ways a prequel to his previous documentary, Maidan, which illustrated how another mass gathering—2013’s Euromaidan—led to Ukraine’s recent revolution.

After the U.S.S.R. collapsed, not a single member of the Soviet regime was prosecuted, which is revealed by a written epilogue. As Loznitsa concluded, several revolutions later, the more things changed within most ex-U.S.S.R. states, the more they stayed the same.
The Event will be screened at Concordia’s J.A. de Sève Theatre on Nov. 20 at 8:30 p.m. and at Cinéma du Parc on Nov. 21 at 9:15 p.m.

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