How does a crowd react to an historic event when certainties are shaken? A year after documenting the beginnings of the Ukrainian Revolution (Maidan, 2014), Sergei Loznitsa revisits a watershed moment in modern Russian history. Made entirely from black and white archival footage, with no commentary at all, The Event looks back on the failed coup in August 1991 that led to the collapse of the USSR. Documentary maker Loznitsa collected TV and amateur footage of street protests in 1991. An attempted coup by reactionary communists embroiled Muscovites at the time in chaos and euphoria, fear and debate. Crowds of protesters gathered in Moscow and Leningrad, preparing to defend the Boris Yeltsin’s democratic opposition.
After his documentary Maidan, about the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014, Sergei Loznitsa now presents the found-footage documentary The Event, looking back at the rebellion which preceded the collapse of the USSR. This was the August Putsch in 1991, a failed coup d’etat in Moscow by a group of communist reactionaries expedited the demise of the ailing Soviet Union. As the hammer and sickle that flew over the Kremlin was replaced by the tricolor of the Russian Federation, the event was hailed around the world as marking the fall of communism and the birth of Russian democracy. The State Committee on the State of Emergency, made up of communist hardliners, attempted a coup on 19 August 1991 and wanted to depose Soviet President Gorbachev and stop democratic reforms. Opposed by the popular uprisal, the coup failed, but it did contribute to the demise of the Soviet Union at the end of December 1991. The footage shot in Leningrad also contains images of a young Putin, who was assistant to the Mayor of the city at the time.
A failed coup d’etat in the heart of a dying empire can be an excellent premise for one of the most important moments in modern Russian history. On the 19th of August 1991, KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov along with other Soviet Party members tried to overthrow USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev. It was obvious that Gorbachev’s decisions to reform politically and economically the country through Perestroika and Glasnost weren’t well received by the nomenclature. In three days in August, USSR will live the most important crisis of a 73-year history. This would also mark the beginning of an inevitable end of the Union. By constructing a portrait of the demonstrations that took place in Palace Square in August 1991 – the same square that was the gathering point of 1917 October Revolution – Loznitsa literally embraces a dying era seen through the perspective of the now former and quite feared comrades. Scattered images, troubled desperate faces, pompous speeches, church’s irrationalism, political opportunism, fear of fascism, natural crowd’s sound and Bolshoi Ballet performance of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake compose Soviet Union’s requiem.
Loznitsa allows the images to speak, showing the confusion (“Is Gorbachev still alive?”) and the slogans (“A free country is a happy country”) up to the conclusion of the coup. On the soundtrack, we regularly hear Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake: President Gorbachev was detained and state TV and radio, usurped in the coup, broadcast Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake instead of news bulletins. As the camera studies the alternately euphoric and anxious faces of people living through an event much bigger than themselves, Loznitsa invites us to reflect on the paradoxical impact of this turning point in Russian history. Through its power of observation, cinema becomes an essential tool for reflecting on history’s seismic events.