The Returned Gaze: Ukraine in the Documentaries of Sergei Loznitsa

Nolan Kelly

One of the most distinctive elements of Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary films is his treatment of crowds. In extensive, static framing, often from a high angle, Loznitsa’s panoramas absorb dozens or hundreds of people as they pass through public spaces. In long takes, he allows the viewer to distinguish certain subjects and follow them as they blend into or stand out of the teeming masses. Typically eschewing interviews, voiceover, or any other form of individual testimony, Loznitsa’s estranged engagement with his subjects can feel disorienting to an American perspective. Unlike Frederick Wiseman, for example, whose documentaries dissect institutional power by highlighting individual operators, Loznitsa films from a distance, capturing patterns of behavior on a grand, collectivist scale. The result is a perspective that enfolds the countless lives affected by events like revolution or war.        

Born into Byelorussia in the Soviet era in 1964, and relocating to Kyiv while still a child, Loznitsa is Ukraine’s preeminent living filmmaker. All of his projects seek to process, on some level, the history of his homeland and its complex relationship with Russia. In the wake of Vladimir Putin’s recent invasion, that relationship has now become brutally simple. In some ways, the assault has merely unmasked what has long been the status quo: Russia has never respected Ukraine’s national sovereignty, and its 31 years of ostensible independence since the collapse of the Soviet Union pale in comparison to the centuries of occupation it has endured from its eastern neighbor. Nevertheless, news of Putin’s decision to invade on February 24, 2022, shocked most of the world  – a sign that this history is still poorly understood on the international level, which has been both assumptive and dismissive of Ukraine’s fragile autonomy, and seeks to define both Russia and Ukraine as wholly separate in their current opposition. Yet the very name “Ukraine” is Old Slavic for “borderland.”

            Anyone looking for a greater understanding of the deeply troubled dynamic between these two nations would do well to turn to Loznitsa’s documentaries. But my recommendation brings some challenges with it. Not only are many of Loznitsa’s films difficult to track down on the internet today, but watching them requires getting comfortable with the director’s moral philosophy: a God’s-eye perspective that renders history a cyclical farce of violence and deception. Loznitsa witnessed firsthand the society-altering aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, yet he has developed a style that teases out broad continuities across time. Implicit in his static camerawork is an acknowledgement of the passivity of witnessing, and his sustained investigations posit a truly dismal perspective on state power.

Loznitsa’s style was developed through his experience with archival footage. His documentaries about events from the early 20th century are noteworthy for their extensive coverage – witnessing radio broadcasts, mass protests, and public executions from multiple perspectives. These are portals to the event that would have been shot by journalists, propagandists, and agents of the state. But Loznitsa lets the camera run, so that the events which likely catalyzed the urge to film (a municipal building on fire, soldiers marching through the street) become intermingled with the ordinariness of the day – people passing by on their way home from work, wanting no part in the events they’ve stumbled into. For the Soviet-era footage especially, in which a totalitarian regime existed symbiotically with the deployment of film technology, it is not unreasonable to believe that the viewer is seeing these people through the eyes of the state. As such, the subjects regard the camera with a certain wariness, and seem ill at ease to have been caught in the frame.

A leitmotif of these documentaries is the gaze of the passerby as it meets the camera. Straightforwardly considered a cinematic faux pas when shooting crowds at street-level, and usually edited out, the glances of these subjects are more than conspicuous. At times it feels like they are the whole point of Loznitsa’s films: the unwilling participant in the historical event as she looks up at the recording apparatus to realize her position as such. In a film style that prioritizes visual testimony over verbal, this returned gaze becomes a substitute for all that’s unspeakable – the trauma of living through such events as the October Revolution, World War II, the Siege of Leningrad, the terror of Stalinism, Perestroika, Glasnost, or the horrific massacre of Jews in Kyiv’s Babyn Yar ravine. The history of eastern Europe in the 20th century is ostensibly a story of collective revolt, but looking into the eyes of these witnesses one often finds only wariness and confusion – a kind of closed-offness that indicates the apparatus should not be trusted to represent their lives.

This is a marked difference from the way passersby regard the camera in old French, German, or American footage. In early 20th century capitalist societies, where the purpose of cinema was chiefly to entertain, such figures often seemed excited about the chance to be documented, even striving to stand out. By contrast, Trotsky’s declaration of cinema as “a weapon of collective education,” created a mandate for Soviet filmmaking to embody Communist values, and for Soviet citizens to model Communist behavior when filmed. In a political environment where such expectations carried consequences, the easiest thing to do was distinguish oneself as little as possible from the crowd. In Loznitsa’s archival films, this compliance seems to grate upon its subjects, and their sense of wariness at being seen discloses a uniquely Ukrainian perspective. Given Soviet Russia’s love for the film camera as an instrument of agitprop and mass surveillance, it is likely that few nations in the history of cinema have been as extensively documented by a foreign occupier and current adversary. The begrudging acknowledgement of these multitudes is emphasized by Loznitsa as a silent form of dissent – one that forms a through-line from the early Soviet footage through the director’s contemporaneous documentary filmmaking, and up to the overt resistance of the Ukrainian people today.

In Babi Yar. Context (2021), this performativity of compliance illustrates a vital point about Ukraine’s long-subjected status, the implications of which illuminate an essential ideological factor behind Russia’s current invasion. In 1941, Ukraine fell under the rule of Nazi Germany as it made its conquest eastward. The invasion was sold to the citizens of Ukraine as liberation from Soviet rule, and footage in Loznitsa’s film shows the celebration of German troops and the veneration of Hitler by citizens of the newly-minted Reichskommissariat. When Stalin’s Red Army forced its way back into the region a few years later, they in turn framed their arrival as a liberation from Nazism – and today the accusation that fascism never fully left Ukraine is the basis for Putin’s invasion, which he sells to his citizens as modern “denazification.”

What makes Loznitsa’s film so disturbing is the parallel between these two liberation scenes – from the Soviets by the Nazis, and vice versa – captured in archival footage that was shot by infantry cameramen of the respective occupiers. In both sequences, there are parades, speeches and dancing in the streets. Iconography of the two regime leaders gets pulled up and torn down. Viewers looking for neat facts and easy answers – including the contentious matter of the Ukrainian peoples’ complicity in the atrocious Babyn Yar massacre – will find themselves frustrated by this film. What is offered instead is something akin to lived experience: the disorientation of wartime and the brutality of survival on the part of those who took no active role in the conflict. The dangers of resisting these armies are recounted in the testimony by a few survivors, but they lie implicit in the glances of every passerby throughout the film.

What’s remarkable about Loznitsa’s films is that they retain this passive dissent even when the footage is original and contemporary. For 2014’s Maidan, about the Euromaidan uprising in Kyiv’s Independence Square, Loznitsa was embedded with the protesters for several months. His footage includes durational shots from the rooftops of municipal buildings and hotels that must have been dangerous to access, given that the area at the time resembled an active war zone, with hundreds of protesters wounded or killed. Static shots of crowd movement are buoyed by a subtly expanded soundscape that includes loudspeaker announcements, poetry readings, drumbeats, and chanting. Ukraine’s masses are seen fighting for their rights and asserting their national character with affecting patriotism. Occasionally, they look at the lens of Loznitsa’s camera, and much like their Soviet predecessors, it is obvious that they are unsure if this witness is a friend or foe.


The ultimate outcome of the Euromaidan movement was anything but certain at the time, and if the uprising had failed and Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former Russian-backed president, had remained in power, many of the protesters would surely have been targeted for persecution with the help of footage such as this. One of the film’s ironies, which Loznitsa was no doubt alert to, is that this assertion of popular sovereignty still amounted to a performance for a foreign power’s approval. The Euromaidan movement began with Yanukovych’s refusal to sign accords with the European Union, and the ultimate aim of the protest was to gain a path toward EU recognition and membership status. Nevertheless, Maidan is the most optimistic of Loznitsa’s landmark films, disclosing the power of revolutionary action even if it falls into the same cyclical pattern of Ukraine’s history to date.

For Loznitsa, whose predilection for crowds is not a negation of individuality but an embrace of collective action, hope comes directly from the masses, in those tenuous moments when they allow themselves to break away from the subjugation of a parasitic regime. The people of Ukraine are engaged in such a mission right now. Loznista’s films are replete with images of Ukrainians staring back at the camera, and any support for them today must first involve meeting their gaze.

Nolan Kelly writes about technology, politics, and perspective in film and literature. An alumnus of The New School’s Lang College for Media Studies, his writing has appeared in BookforumSenses of CinemaCinema SkylineHyperallergic, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

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