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TIFF Liam Lacey’s TIFF Diary: Films explore both sides of Ukraine crisis

Two grandly ambitious films at the Toronto International Film Festival – one, a stark documentary shot in Ukraine, and the other, a layered drama in provincial Russia – offer some deep perspective on the two nations locked in conflict. Sergei Loznitsa's Maidan, which documents last winter's mass protests in Kiev's Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), is a must-see for anyone passionately concerned with the current crisis in Ukraine. What makes it of interest to a wider audience is the director's daring formal technique, which makes this documentation of a news event feel like part of cinema history. Mr. Loznitsa avoided any use of voiceover or interviews in the film, relying entirely on static cameras and microphones placed around Kiev's central square to record events as they unfolded.

The film begins recording the protest in early December, 2013, following President Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to sign an "association agreement" with the European Union. The all-night campers and the songs and poetry that are carried through the square in December initially have the feeling of a Christmas party attended by people of all ages. But as December turns to January, frustration sets in with the new anti-protest laws. Violence rises in the film's second half: Molotov cocktails and cobblestone missiles from the protesters; water cannons, tear gas and sniper fire from the police.

Mr. Loznitsa, who has had two previous dramatic features in competition in Cannes (My Joy and In the Fog), has made a film not about heroic individuals, but the masses, showing the collective sense of national identity and outraged rejection of Russian paternalism. Free from stirring montages or point-of-view tracking shots, Maidan feels like a true record of events (although editing choices have obviously been made), where the drama rises from the energy of the crowd. The only time the camera moves is when it shakes to the reverberation of running feet, and once, when the operator picks it up and moves it to get away from the tear gas and ammunition aimed in his direction.

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In contrast, Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan is an elegant fabrication, a symphony of black comedy and tragedy, set in a stunningly shot arctic fishing village in northwest Russia. The fourth feature from the 50-year-old Mr. Zvyagintsev (The Return, Elena) is a retelling of the story of Job, filtered through the pessimism of Thomas Hobbes, as a bleak state-of-the-nation report on contemporary Russia.

The film follows the fate of Kolia (Aleksei Serebryakov), a middle-aged auto-repair-shop owner who lives in the village with his young wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and teenaged son from a previous marriage. At the film's start, Kolia is facing the first of what becomes a chain of crises. The village mayor Vadim, an obese, hard-drinking buffoon, wants to appropriate Kolia's property for a development, and will use any method – legal or not – to get what he wants.

I spoke with the director, Mr. Zvyagintsev, about some of the film's themes: How capitalism had proved more demoralizing than liberating for many Russians; how the church had filled an ideological vacuum in Communism's wake; how the forces of Russian repression were waxing powerful once again.

"Nowadays, you can sense by various markers that we are going back to the Soviet Union," he told me. "We have censorship: We have a very steady, realistic feeling that we have no freedom of speech any more." Well, there is some freedom. Leviathan will be released in Russia, as soon as some of the profanity in it is "muffled." But the director says he's not optimistic about much else in Russia at the moment, except for the Russians' historical gift for patience.

"People say they leave the theatre after the film feeling miserable, and the hair is standing up on the back of their heads. They ask, 'Is it really that bad?' I tell them I exaggerate nothing."

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