Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Doc Fortnight ’16: The Event

Who lost Russia? To answer that question, Sergei Loznitsa harkens back to the day it appeared to be won. In what remains his finest hour, Boris Yeltsin rallied fellow Russians against the hardline Communists who had deposed Gorbachev in a coup that came well after the people started to believe they could be free. In the newly re-christened St. Petersburg, opposition to the coup was spearheaded by the reformist mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, who is quite a tricky figure to take stock of, considering he was Putin’s mentor, who would eventually die under suspicious circumstances. There is both heady promise and strange flashes of foreboding in Loznitsa’s boots-on-the-ground documentary The Event (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2016 Doc Fortnight at MoMA.

The images from Moscow are maybe more familiar to us, but the backdrop in St. Petersburg could not be more perfect. That is indeed the Winter Palace. Since the hardcore Communist coup-plotters had taken control of all media and communications, information is spotty on the square. To convey a sense of their confusion, Loznitsa periodically punctuates The Event with extracts from Swan Lake, the official soundtrack to internal Soviet strife, which the conspirators were duly broadcasting, being creatures of habit.

When addressing the crowd, Sobchak sure looks and sounds like a man of destiny. However, if you see a weasely-looking aide in the background who looks like Putin, it probably is. In fact, it is rather ironic to hear Sobchak rail against the dangers of resurgent Stalinism in 1991, knowing he would later proclaim his protégé to be the second coming of Stalin, as if that were a good thing. (Ironically, he was right both times.)

The Event is a somewhat demanding film that rewards viewers observant enough to pick up on little details buried within the tableaux of mass demonstrations. Loznitsa does not spoon-feed much to the audience, but he closes with a sharp reminder none of the old regime’s crimes were never prosecuted. Clearly, he leaves us to wonder just how discrete and firewalled the incoming government would be from the former oppressive system.

Assembling black-and-white archival video that evoke Eisenstein and newsreels of 1956 and 1968, The Event crackles with immediacy and uncertainty. In retrospect, it is even harder to render judgments on Sobchak’s moment of destiny, but the widespread anger at the Communist system still rings clear as a bell. Clearly, when it comes to documenting broad-based demonstrations against neo- and retro-Soviet oppression, Loznitsa is the man. Arguably, The Event is not as immediate or immersive as Maidan, but it has a slyer, shrewder editorial sensibility. Highly recommended, The Event screens again tomorrow (2/24) as part of this year’s Doc Fortnight at MoMA.