I think I remember the moment when I realized that the war in my country has started.1The Maidan uprising was still in full swing, president Yanukovych was still in power, and the Russian invasion of Crimea has not yet taken place. I was filming the clashes between the rioters and the police in front of National Art Museum of Ukraine and I saw a TV crew that grabbed my attention.
The logo on the reporter’s mic read ANNA News, and I knew the meaning of this abbreviation. It was Abkhazian National News Agency, a media outlet of a self-declared Abkhazian republic, which was ultimately separated from Georgia by the Russian army in 2008. I also knew that the presence of ANNA News in the streets of Kyiv was actually a reconnaissance of the military aggressor. ANNA News was almost unknown outside Abkhazia at that time. Later on I have learned that it was actually established with a mission to cover the war in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi on the side of the loyalists. ANNA News boasts that most of its reporters are actually volunteers who don’t get paid for their work.
Back then, I only recognized the logo of ANNA News because I was following the developments of the Syrian war. I knew ANNA News because it was the only foreign agency whose reporters had their cameras installed on the tanks of the Assad army during its battles with rebels. It was clear that these cameras were war machines just as much as they were media tools. It was also clear that they had some special interest in the streets of Kyiv. The crew that I came across was filming in between the rows of the riot police. Several months later, they could well have their cameras installed on the Russian tanks in Eastern Ukraine.
Back then, during the Maidan uprising, it was hard to imagine that scores of filmmakers and media activists would soon change their occupation to war correspondents and military volunteers. It seemed that the contrary was taking place: the events at Maidan were caused by a incursion of grassroots media activism into big politics.
In Kyiv, online dissent against integration with Russia has immediately provoked offline assemblies and occupations. The debate about the future of society moved from presidential residencies and online forums to the squares of Ukrainian cities. The general public believes that an ultimate starting point for the Maidan uprising was a single facebook post by a certain Ukrainian journalist, who called on his followers to meet up at Maidan square on the night when the Yanukovych government declared an end to its rapprochement with Europe. This account does not, however, fully represent the role that the social media had in provoking the Maidan uprising. The social network that turned public dissent into a full-scale uprising against the regime was actually YouTube, not Facebook or Twitter. What actually transformed a relatively minor, Facebook-inspired gathering at Maidan into a full-scale uprising was not written text but moving image. This transformation took place when the riot police suddenly attacked a peaceful protest at Maidan square in an unprecedentedly violent way. The moving images of this crackdown were immediately disseminated on the internet. It were these images that made hundreds of thousands of people occupy not just the streets but also governmental buildings in Kyiv.
This sudden role of online video in provoking a social uprising means a new reality for political filmmaking. In the same time, it reintroduces the old debates of the Soviet avant-garde filmmakers into the context of social media. The role of film as social mobilizer was widely debated both by practitioners and theorists for decades, and it seems that incorporation of the moving image into social media created a moment when the boldest of their projections and dreams could be materialized. For instance, Sergei Eisenstein, who had once denounced the idea of ‘kino-eye’ suggested by Dziga Vertov, claimed that ‘It is not a kino-eye that we need, but a kino-fist’. This meant that political filmmaking needed to have a direct effect on the viewers, and not just transform their perception of social reality. ‘Cinema must break through the skull’, wrote Eisenstein. By this he meant that cinema needed to have an instantly mobilizing effect, which would transform the viewers’ consciousness.
Today, it’s no longer necessary to break through the skulls of the viewers with a masterly avant-garde film work. A simple online video may be enough. At Maidan, the broken skulls that Eisenstein used as a metaphor, became actual image material. There’s a rumour that after the screening of Battleship Potemkin by Eisenstein in Paris in the 1920ies, the viewers started to build the barricades immediately outside the film theater. In Kyiv, a low-quality fuzzy amateur video posted online made people erect the barricades instantly.
All of the social and revolutionary movements were accompanied by the moving image since its invention – starting at least with October Revolution whose visual representations became its integral part, formative for the event itself – from Eiseinstein’s ‘October’ to Vertov’s ‘Kino-Pravda’ . Indeed, its hard to avoid the tautological repetition of the word “move” when speaking about moving images and mass movements. The image of mass movement – masses of moving people – itself became a revolutionary factor. Thanks to the moving image, the revolutionary mass becomes conscious of itself as a movement. Walter Benjamin’s insight that nothing fits the eye of the camera better than mass movements (and wars) is timely as ever. But what happens with this mass movement when the moving images become all-pervasive?
Maidan uprising seemed to realize the dream of directly employing the moving image in political struggle. The occupied squares of Kyiv became an inexhaustible source of visual images ready to be used as media-weapons in the fight against the regime. These events created an overly advantageous situation for artists, directors and all the owners of video cameras. On Maidan, it was enough to turn one’s lens in virtually any direction to be guaranteed material ready for one’s blog or gallery video-installation, or simply to be sold to the Western media. Of course the cost of this material lay in the real tragedies of a considerable number of Maidan participants. They formed the scenery for this documentary blockbuster and served as its unpaid extras. The filmmakers most conscious of their position of privilege in this process did try to compensate by getting directly involved in the events on Maidan. (Some of them even mastered the technique of throwing a Molotov cocktail without turning off the camera). But the role of image production in this revolt was not purely cynical.
The continuous stream of images coming from Maidan became a direct political instrument. Its role was not limited to mobilizing new participants. The visual documentation of Maidan has forced this uprising into the focus of global attention economy of the media. This was not only a struggle with the regime – this was a struggle for visibility. The key element of this revolt – both on the practical and visual levels – was the smoke screen produced by burning tires that separated the protesters and the police. At first glance, this smoke simply blocked the security forces’ view, disoriented them and prevented their attack. But at the same time these columns of fire and smoke created an ideal media-image. This assured continuous attention from the international media, which, in turn, put political pressure on the authorities. Every tire burned on the barricades was converted into a fraction of a second of airtime. And the presence of countless cameras and TV crews prevented the ultimate crackdown by the police.
Meanwhile, ANNA News agency and its numerous counterparts were also doing their job, building on the visual repertoire of the uprising. For them, the violence unleashed in the streets of Kyiv was a sign that Ukraine could potentially become a new Syria or a Libya, and that a new Abkhazia or Chechnya could emerge on its ruins if they did their job well. They were aided not just by the powerful international propaganda campaign that Russia had unleashed against the Maidan uprising. They were also accidentally aided by many of those who participated in that uprising in good faith. First of all, the violence directed at the protesters by the police turned out to be very contagious. This is clearly seen in the self-defense forces of Maidan, which more and more resembled militarized units modeled on the police forces that they were supposed to counter. Maidan movement was utilizing the power of (moving) image, but it could not contain it. This power of image was at the heart of the insurgency – but then images started to live their own lives, spiralling out of control and being hijacked by the counterinsurgency.
Maidan movement was not only an endless source of imagery that could be used in its favour – it was also a source of imagery ready to be utilized as counter-propaganda against the uprising. The spectacularity of Maidan was its biggest strength and its biggest weakness at the same time. And this spectacular dimension of violence allowed to create a narrative of counterrevolution, or counterinsurgency. This narrative (first dubbed Anti-Maidan and run by the Yanukovych government, then – after its fall – morphing into a pro-Russian secessionist movement) has turned an image-based Maidan uprising against itself. It was mobilizing its followers with the very same ready-made, spectacular images – but with a different sign, presenting the insurgency at Maidan as uncanny violent chaos. The same images that helped to create an insurgency were deployed in a narrative of counterrevolution. This narrative is very simple. In a nutshell, it says: “If there is an uprising against the unpopular government that leads to its overthrow, this may have only one possible outcome: war, be it a hybrid war or a civil war. So, if you are unhappy with your government, think twice before going out to the streets, because otherwise you will be deprived of what you already have.”
This is exactly the narrative that was supposed to bury the Arab uprisings under the rubble of civil wars in Syria and Libya. And this is exactly the narrative that is behind the counterinsurgency in Ukraine, the Russian invasion of Crimea and igniting the war in Donbas.
The narrative of counterrevolution does not negate the revolution itself. It builds on the imagery of the revolution and on its spectacularity. To undermine a revolution, you need to mock it, to create its paradoxical double. For one instance, the so-called ‘little green men’ from the Russian army were disguised as self-defense activists in Crimea. For sure, these men were aided by some authentic volunteers who did much of the affective labour of counterrevolution, inspired by the images of revolution turned against itself. The assemblies and occupations of the Anti-Maidan movement in East Ukraine that prepared ground for the military invasion were clearly modeled on the images of Kyiv revolt, filtered and transmitted through various media. The image of revolution has been translated into the reality of war.
Oleksiy Radynski is a filmmaker and writer based in Kyiv. His work most often deals with representation and misrepresentation of social movements. His screenings and talks have recently taken place, among other venues, at Oberhausen International Film Festival, e-flux (New York), ICA London, Academy of the Arts of the World (Cologne), and Volksbühne Theater (Berlin). He is a participant of Visual Culture Research Center, an initiative for art, knowledge, and politics founded in Kyiv, 2008.
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|1.||↑||This text is based on a talk given by the author at e-flux (New York) in February 2015|