Sergei Loznitsa "A Study of the People around Us"

Ukrainian filmmaker, who is world-known thanks to his short and feature-length documentaries as well as fiction films. His latest feature film Donbass (2018) received the prize for Best Directing of the Un Certain Regard section of Festival de Cannes. His two latest documentary films also have gained critical acclaim - Victory Day (2018) was premiered during Berlinale IFF and The Trial (2018) was premiered during Venice Film Festival.

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Sergei Loznitsa was born September 5th, 1964 in the city of Baranovitchi, in Belarus. Later Sergey’s family moved to Kiev where he grew up, and in 1987 graduated from the Kiev Polytechnic with a degree in Applied Mathematics. In 1987-1991 Sergei worked as a scientist at the Kiev Institute of Cybernetics, specializing in artificial intelligence research. In 1997 Loznitsa graduated from the Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow, where he studied feature filmmaking. By now he has directed 20 documentary and 4 feature films. 

From my point of view, documentaries don’t have anything to do with reality; they are a reconstruction, if not a pure construction. We could say that theoretical physics represents fiction films and experimental physics represents documentary film. So there must be “experimental, theoretical physics” and this is what best describes my work. I really want to continue to do both. Both allow us to discover and understand the world. When cameras were invented, one of the first things we imagined was the scientific value of these instruments. The notion of scientific recording emerges at the same time as the notion of entertainment. People are often scared of the word “science” when it comes to film. It’s better to present things in the light of a study. If you claim to be doing something anthropological, you scare the audience away! But that’s what I’m doing: visual anthropology, a study of the people around me. All of us can become the subject of a study, whether we like it or not. 

Sergei Loznitsa

Loznitsa has been making documentary films since 1996. He has received numerous international and national awards, including festival prizes in Karlovy Vary, Leipzig, Oberhausen, Paris, Madrid, Toronto, Jerusalem, St-Petersburg, as well as the Russian National Film awards “Nika” and “Laurel”. Most of his documentary films are based on archival footage. "I have a lot of experience of working with the Russian archival footage (I made Blockade, Revue and The Event), and I know how difficult it is to approach the archives and to access the material,” Loznitsa remarks. “For example, when we were working on Blockade , we wrote numerous letters including the KGB archive, requesting permission to view the footage related to the siege of Leningrad. We never received any replies." 

His debut feature film My Joy (2010) premiered in the main competition at the Festival de Cannes, and was followed by the feature film In the Fog (2012), which was awarded FIPRESCI prize at the 65th Festival de Cannes.  In 2013 Loznitsa founded a film production company ATOMS & VOID.


Loznitsa’s feature-length documentary film Maidan (2014), dedicated to the civil uprising against the regime of president Yanukovych that took place in Kiev (Ukraine) in the winter of 2013/14, was premiered in 2014 at the Festival de Cannes, out of Competition. The film which follows the progress of the revolution is a portrait of an awakening nation, rediscovering its identity. Loznitsa told about the filmmaking process of Maidan: "I shot the first 45 minutes with my camera. And after that, I met the cameraman three times. I explained to him a little bit, and he shot during the day and came to me, and he understood very quickly what I needed. Because it’s a very, very concrete task. After that, he sent me all the material, and I step by step said, “This is good, this is good, this is not” and so on. A hundred hours [of material]."


At Venice festival in 2015, Sergei Loznitsa presented The Event, a found-footage chronicle of the fall of the Soviet Union as viewed in Leningrad. In 2016 he finished another documentary - Austerlitz

This carefully composed monochrome film without voiceover shows scenes of modern-day tourists at Holocaust sites in German and asks troubling questions about man’s ability to consume and yet, at the same time, forget the past. Loznitsa describes Austerlitz as an effort to reckon with an existential crisis he felt on his first visit to Buchenwald. He was there doing side research for a project called “Babi Year” about mass murders in World War II Ukraine. "I realized, in front of the crematorium, that I was myself like a tourist,” he said. “And at the same time, I thought, ‘How can I be? How can I stay there?"

A Gentle Creature (2017), a story inspired by Dostoevsky, about a woman seeking justice for her incarcerated husband was nominated to Palme d´Or at the Cannes Film Festival. "For me, this film is a metaphor for a country where people are constantly violated by each other. The country is bursting with all forms of violence. On the one hand, have total hypocrisy, gigantic lies and double standards, a perfect omerta… and on the other hand, you have horrendous things that continue to happen every single day. For me, this remains a painfully irresolvable enigma. Instead of living and going about things in a calm, friendly manner, at every stage of our lives we are forced to take a difficult, dishonest and sometimes terrible path. This is a horrible paradox, the worst of paradoxes, that I have been aware of since the age of five and that I still don’t understand today. The film’s point of no return comes exactly an hour in, when the heroine is outside the prison. She stages a little private protest in front of the prison. A constellation of characters begins to appear around her and the story starts to unfold." said Loznitsa. 

His latest feature film Donbass (2018) received the prize for Best Directing of the Un Certain Regard section of Festival de Cannes.  The film consists of 13 episodes, each of them narrating a story, which took place on the occupied territories during 2014 - 2015. It was selected as the Ukrainian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards. Loznitsa said: "The new element that makes this film different from previous films is that there is no protagonist whatsoever. [Characters] just completely disappear. It’s been a long time since I really wanted to try and experiment with such structure. I was inspired by the experiments of Eisenstein, and I used the same technique that Buñuel used in The Phantom of Liberty. It’s a collection of episodes, and in every one there is a character that moves us to the next one. And my intention was to have every episode of the film show one side, one manifestation, one aspect of this omnipresent process of disintegration and decay. Almost every episode has a documentary reference, in that there were people who filmed these types of situations—events that happened for real—with their mobile phones and then uploaded them to the Internet."

His two latest documentary films also have gained critical acclaim - Victory Day (2018) was premiered during Berlinale IFF and The Tria(2018) was premiered during Venice Film Festival. “One of the most difficult tasks for me was to choose one particular topic from this vast ocean of  precious material. In the beginning, the idea was to use footage from different trials, and also to incorporate the footage from the official state funerals of the Soviet leadership, Stalin’s closes associates – Vladimir Lenin, Sergei Kirov, Felix Dzerzhinsky, some of whom were assassinated on Stalin’s orders,” the director says. “I wanted to create a monumental picture of the first years of the Stalinist regime... In the end, I decided to focus on one trial only.” said Loznitsa about The Trial.

Filmography

Today We Are Going To Build A House (documentary, 1996, 28 min)
Life, Autumn (documentary, 1998, 34 min)
The Train Stop (documentary, 2000, 25 min)
Settlement (documentary, 2001, 80 min)
Portrait (documentary, 2002, 28 min)
Landscape (documentary, 2003, 60 min)
Factory (documentary, 2004, 30 min)
Blockade (documentary, 2005, 52 min)
Artel (documentary, 2006, 30 min)
Revue (documentary, 2008, 83 min)
Northern Light (documentary, 2008, 52 min)
My Joy (feature, 2010, 127 min)
In the Fog (feature, 2012, 128 min)
O Milagre de Santo António (documentary, 2012, 40 min)
Letter (documentary, 2013, 20 min)
Reflections/Bridges of Sarajevo (documentary, 2014, 17 min)
Maidan (documentary, 2014, 133 min)
The Old Jewish Cemetery (documentary, 2014, 20 min)
The Event (documentary, 2015, 74 min)
Austerlitz (documentary, 2016, 94 min)
A Gentle Creature (feature, 2017, 143 min)
Victory Day (documentary, 2018, 94 min)
Donbass (feature, 2018, 121 min)
The Trial (documentary, 2018, 127 min)