Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 2, 2018

Breaking Point

Filed under: Film,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 9:49 pm

Opening today at the Cinema Village in NY, “Breaking Point: The War for Democracy in Ukraine” makes an interesting contrast to “A Sniper’s War” that I reviewed on February 9th. Both films begin with an introduction to soldiers fighting on either side of lines in the Donetsk breakaway republic. In “A Sniper’s War”, it was a Serb volunteer and a self-described communist who joined up with separatists because he hated NATO, especially for the destruction it wrought in his native country. In “Breaking Point”, it is a children’s theater workshop director who tells us that it is “beauty, art and love” that will save the world. Those ideals convinced him to risk his life trying to recapture Donetsk just as the Serb’s devotion to communist ideals, no matter how compromised, convinced him to risk his.

Unlike “Winter on Fire”, the Netflix cinema vérité that is focused exclusively on Euromaidan, “Breaking Point” begins with the protests and takes us nearly to the state of affairs that prevails today, which leads one Ukrainian to ask toward the end of the film: “What did people die for?”

The documentary was co-directed and co-written by Mark Jonathan Harris, a 77-year old professor in the School of Cinematic Arts of the University of Southern California, and Oles Sanin, a multi-talented 45-year old Ukrainian who obviously was instrumental in getting the film to accurately represent historical events. Harris is no stranger to conflicted territory and beliefs. His 1997 “The Long Way Home” dealt with the experience of Jewish refugees after World War II but erred in serving up what amounted to Israeli propaganda according to Spike Lee. Apparently, Lee’s criticism had an impact since Harris followed up with “A Dream No More” that was intended to show Israel with warts and all. Commissioned by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the film was scuttled for obvious reasons after it was finished. An angry Harris complained that the Center wanted a “feel-good Diaspora jubilee film” and were unwilling to accept an honest accounting of Israel’s history.

Although my perspective on Ukraine differs from Harris and Sanin’s, I encourage my readers to see the film since it is a cohesive and largely reliable presentation of the last 5 years of Ukraine’s tortured history, including a war that has cost 10,000 lives and the displacement of more than a million of its citizens, mostly in the east for obvious reasons.

The film is best when it presents the views of ordinary citizens like the children’s theater director who said that he had little interest in politics but simply wanted to act in the interest of Ukraine’s national honor. Or a physician who volunteered his services both at Euromaidan and in Donetsk. He is a middle-aged, overweight man seen in the trailer above with little to offer in the way of analysis but critical for how he represents of the decent and ordinary Ukrainian citizenry who tend to get slandered in the left media as tools of the CIA.

The problem lies in the expert presentations, which include the former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk who offers platitudes about how democracy cannot be built in a day, etc. He claims that the “rule of law” is Ukraine’s salvation but does not go near the more urgent question of how the “rule of capital” will be Ukraine’s undoing, as the Serb sniper believed. We also hear from Anne Applebaum, the Washington Post pundit, and Yale professor Timothy Snyder who have impressive credentials as Ukraine experts even though their analysis of Ukraine’s problems tends to put all the blame for its woes on Putin.

In reality, Ukraine is impaled on the horns of a dilemma. Euromaidan was inspired by the hopes that Ukraine could become “normal” by joining the European Union. Ukrainians who worked in the Netherlands or Sweden must have been deeply envious of countries that could provide a decent standard of living and police departments that weren’t filled with thugs demanding bribes when they weren’t assaulting blameless citizens. What they didn’t count on was how the Netherlands and Sweden got there. It was by extracting super-profits from colonial peoples that helped create the conditions for the social democratic Eden that had been lusted after in Eastern Europe for generations.

Unlike Ukraine, countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have freely elected presidents that reject the EU and are adopting policies even more authoritarian than Putin, the man they consider their leader in the same way that Poroshenko looked to Obama. They had a taste of Washington Post type neoliberalism and spat it out. There is no Putinite waiting in the wings in Ukraine for obvious reasons.

Another failure of “Breaking Point” is its unwillingness to address the question of the country’s fascist elements. In an oblique way of addressing it, it includes a Jew who had trained to be a rabbi at one point in his life but became totally committed to the nationalist cause, so much now that he leads a battalion in Donetsk. When he asserts that there was no anti-Semitism in Maidan Square, he was certainly correct insofar as that was a reference to those who spoke from the platform. However, nobody can deny that some of the defense guards that protected the crowds from police attack did include anti-Semites, especially the neo-Nazis who would later on fight with the Azov Battalion in Donetsk. Ironically, the party its leader founded now opposes both EU and NATO, which, according to Putin’s apologists like Stephen F. Cohen, were supposedly the chief goal of the Ukrainian fascists.

This absence was most glaring when the film depicts the shoving match that took place in front of the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) when it signed a treaty that left Donetsk in Russian hands two years ago. The protesters were members of Right Sector and Svoboda, the two main ultra-right parties in Ukraine that needed to be identified by Harris and Sanin in the interests of transparency. After all, that is the main job of the documentary filmmaker—to tell it like it is.


  1. By chance I am listening to audiocassettes by Alan Bennett at the moment, who visited the Soviet Union around 1980, and he visited Lviv. He mentions its history a little, Polish, then Soviet after the carve up that followed the Hitler-stalin pact. He says that it is a centre of Ukrainian Nationalism now (early 1980s), and that anti semitism is apparent. He only found out later about Janowska concentration camp and remarks that Nationalism and (Catholic inspired?) reactionary attitudes , are no more tolerant than the Soviet despotism they sought to displace. The Ukrainian Right mirror the Putinist Fascists, a Serb Nationalist in eastern Ukraine is the mirror image of the Azov Battalion. All are useless in building decent minded societies based on internationalist socialist principles.

    Comment by Matthew Jackson — March 3, 2018 @ 7:16 pm

  2. ‘Ukraine and the Empire of Capital’ looks like a really interesting book on the political economy of Ukraine that came out very recently from Pluto Press and is concentrated on the post-1991 years, right up almost to the present day.

    Perhaps you might consider reviewing it?


    Comment by Victor — March 4, 2018 @ 4:40 am

  3. My understanding is that Sweden developed its social democracy on the basis of access to large amounts of raw materials (wood, steel)-transforming itself from a rural to an urban country in a generation. Perhaps one could argue that its prosperity was indirectly related to colonialism as the market for its goods was in advanced capitalism and its post-war boom (which of course co-incides with the slow and gradual retreat of colonialism). But of course one might argue something similar about the development of the Soviet economy. The search for models suitable for the 21st century is not an easy one.

    Comment by John Gamey — March 7, 2018 @ 10:20 am

  4. “After all, that is the main job of the documentary filmmaker—to tell it like it is.”

    No it’s not. A documentary is an editorial as much as anything else. Expecting truth from a documentary gets you nowhere. What you should expect is an argument from the filmmaker about why this is important.

    Comment by Bad — April 25, 2018 @ 1:46 pm

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