It’s been four years since Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution. However, as director Mark Jonathan Harris reminds us with his documentary Breaking Point, the lessons from that revolution and its aftermath continue to enjoy great relevance today in 2018.
While making the film, they had no idea many of the issues Ukraine struggled with—Russian disinformation, the presence of plutocrats in government—would also become realities for the United States and other Western democracies.
Yet here we are today. Amidst investigations into Russian election interference and Putin’s continued saber-rattling, Breaking Point is kicking off a US theatrical release. To learn more about the film, Cinema Escapist caught up with Mark Jonathan Harris for an in-depth interview.
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What led you to direct Breaking Point and work together with your Ukrainian co-director Oles Sanin?
I met Oles a number of years ago when I was doing a film in Ukraine. He was helping us because I didn’t know much about Ukraine at the time.
Oles actually approached me about Breaking Point. He wanted to tell Ukraine’s story to Western audiences, and thought that it’d be important to have a Western director to help “translate” their story. Having lived the story daily—being in the Maidan and shooting film—Oles and the team in Ukraine wanted a fresh eye to see what’d be important to Western audiences.
As we made the film, we had to do a lot of compressing. The Ukrainians would say “oh, you can’t leave that out, that’s so important” while we in the US would say “well unfortunately, it might not be as important to a Western audience”. We assumed we’d be speaking to an audience that was completely ignorant about the history and conditions in Ukraine.
Breaking Point contains lots of on-the-ground footage of the Euromaidan protests and combat in Eastern Ukraine—did Oles film all that himself, direct a bunch of people…?
He filmed some of it, but there were multiple camera people. We took footage from many individuals. This is the age of social media—people were out there with all kinds of cameras.
Breaking Point includes high resolution footage, as well as cell phone footage. For example, the footage about MH17—that was taken from cell phones of people who first arrived on the scene.
Also: people these days go to war with GoPros on their helmets. Therefore, some of our combat footage is from GoPros, taken by the soldiers themselves.
Wow. Was there a concerted crowdsourcing effort to gather all this rather diverse footage?
We edited and constructed the film here [in the US]. However, both the US and Ukrainian teams looked through hundreds of hours of footage across sources like YouTube, and we did a lot of archival research. As the film developed, we’d say “we need footage for this” — and we’d look across our various sources across both Ukraine and the US.
Gleaning from what you just said: did you have a narrative skeleton to start with, and then try to fill that in?
Yes. When I make films, I always try to work from a treatment.
We knew that we wanted to tell a story from the perspective of people who were both involved in the Maidan revolution and then also continued to either fight in the war or try transforming the government.
When you make a documentary, it always comes down to “through whose eyes will we see the story”. Therefore, we identified types of characters we wanted, and searched for them.
For instance, we identified Tetiana [Chornovol] (a journalist and Euromaidan activist who was later elected to Ukraine’s parliament) early on as an important character, and Oles happened to know her.
We also wanted someone who was Jewish and involved in the struggle. Because of the fraught history of Jewish-Ukrainian relationships, we wanted to fight stereotypes of Ukrainians being anti-Semitic. That’s how we came to Natan Hazin (a Jewish Self-Defense Unit leader).
We were also looking for a volunteer soldier. So much of the army was volunteers, and it was like a David and Goliath story—these people were going to war in their cars and trucks. My co-writer Paul Wolansky saw a clip of the theater director on YouTube, and thought he had the right kind of charisma. Oles sought him out, and he became a character in the film.
Ultimately, we interviewed a lot of people, and selected those that would make the best characters.
On the Western side… you have people like Anne Applebaum, who’s a pretty prominent academic in this field. I assume there was a similar “casting” process on this Western front?
Yeah, we looked for a few experts to put the story in political and historical context.
Anne Applebaum has also written a lot about Ukraine, and she’s located in Poland and England.
Chrystia Freeland… at the time she was Canada’s Trade Minister, now she’s Foreign Minister. She was someone who’d also written about these topics, had a relevant background [of Ukrainian heritage], and therefore felt natural to go to .
These people were easy choices, and were happy to be interviewed.
As an aside—Timothy Snyder, besides writing Bloodlands as a seminal work about Ukraine during the Second World War, he’s now written On Tyranny, and become even more prominent since Trump became President.
You mentioned earlier how you had to play a curatorial role by telling the Ukrainians “hey, this might not be relevant to Western audiences”. What were some examples of topics or scenes you had to push back on?
Well, part of this was that the Maidan and its aftermath happened over months. We had to compress all that into a 1.5 hour film in some logical manner.
Because they actually went through the events, the Ukrainians thought everything was more important than we did, particularly certain dates. The film was longer when we started out, obviously, but we ended up particularly compressing events near the end of the Maidan protests.
There were a couple scenes I’m sorry we had to lose.
One was Dr. Stebliuk (a military doctor) training medics. It was filmed terrifically; they were out there practicing battlefield medicine.
There was another scene where the Yanchenkos (a couple who joined the Ukrainian military) had a baby. After the baby’s birth, there were celebrations, and it was like a symbol for the future of Ukraine. It was lovely, but seemed redundant for where we were in the film at the time. It’d probably be great for DVD extras, but didn’t really fit the narrative.
Another thing: the Ukrainians wanted more about the terror famine in the 30’s, the Holodomor. I understand that since it shaped so much of Ukraine and, initially, we had much more history and exposition—but the film just couldn’t bear it.
Breaking Point reflects on how the Western media has a very short attention span. To that end: why should people watch this documentary and care today in 2018 , four years after the Maidan? And is there anything we can do to combat or mitigate this short attention span?
It’s interesting you say that because we finished the film in 2016, and would ideally have liked to released it then. But the world and American media had turned away from Ukraine at that moment. They considered Ukraine a past event; the battlefield had moved from Ukraine to Syria.
However, the film’s back now, and it’s as relevant as when we first made it. Why? Because of Russia’s disinformation campaigns, and their attempts to disrupt our [US] elections and democracy in Europe.
Ukraine reflects the future of democracy in Europe, and I never thought at the time we made Breaking Point that [these lessons from Ukraine] would apply to [the US] as well, but they do. Russians have not only interfered in elections all across Europe, but also here in the US with concentrated multi-million dollar disinformation campaigns. They’ve been really effective—we don’t know exactly how effective, but we can see that it did have an impact.
The other thing we didn’t realize while making the film was how the spirit of the Maidan, with resistance against plutocrats and kleptocrats everywhere, is very relevant here [in the US]. That spirit is quite inspiring for the resistance to what’s going on here under the current Republican administration.
On that point of resistance, at a higher level: what is documentary filmmaking to you—art, activism, journalism? All of the above? And do you feel it is necessary to take sides as a documentarian?
I don’t look at look at [documentary filmmaking] within those categories. I believe as [Jean-Luc] Godard does—a good film is an answer to questions properly asked.
Documentary films are means of exploration: you go out there with certain questions, and the film is the answer to those questions. You’re trying to communicate to audiences what you’ve discovered in the process of answering those questions.
A film is an answer to an inquiry. That inquiry can range over multiple kinds of issues in many different areas—political events, historical events. That’s how I see documentary filmmaking.
For Breaking Point, the question I asked was: “what is it like to risk your life for a collective cause, for something greater than yourself?”
One of the earliest films I made was Huelga, about Cesar Chavez and the grape strike in Delano [California]. While making that film I didn’t know what the strike’s results would be. But it transformed the lives of all those involved.
I saw something similar in Ukraine. The events of the Maidan and beyond transformed the lives of everyone involved, and that transformation interests me.
You’ve not only directed documentaries, but also written fiction books, including children’s fiction. In terms of your creative skillset and mindset: how much of a overlap is there when telling fictional stories v. nonfiction ones?
I think that documentary and fiction have more in common than they have differences—they’re both about about telling a story. Some stories lend themselves to documentary, especially stories like this that have a broader scope; fiction can be in some ways more intimate look.
I always try to ask myself when I take on a project: what’s the best form for this? Is it a book? An essay? A film?
For films, I ask: “is it cinematic”?
Once you begin to see footage of the Maidan, it’s incredibly cinematic. I didn’t live through it, while Oles did, but we both felt “this was something that needs to be a film”.
Furthermore, the narrative skills you use for writing fiction are very helpful for documentaries. The documentaries audiences are attracted to these days are often very character driven. Casting is therefore as essential as it is in fiction films.
You ask: whose eyes will we see this story through? Are we going to care about these people? Are these riveting, charismatic characters? And that’s why, as I mentioned previously, we spent a lot of time casting.
As you got more familiar and involved with the characters of Breaking Point, did your personal views on Ukraine evolve or mature in any way?
Well, I’m in awe of people who are willing to take these risks.
There are people willing to go to battle, and I’m in LA in the editing room watching them. There are people like Tetiana who stand in front of crowds and face up to them even when they’re throwing stuff at her.
It’s inspiring and daunting to think of someone willing to do that. It makes you question your own values and what you’re willing to stand up for.
Breaking Point acknowledges how it’ll probably take decades for Ukraine to change. Do characters like Tetiana give you hope, or make you more worried about the turmoil that’s still happening in Ukraine?
In the film, Timothy Snyder mentions how it’s easier to make a revolution than to end corruption and bring the rule of law. As you can see, the results [of the Maidan revolution] are mixed and still ongoing.
There’s a long history of corruption in Ukraine. I think they’ve made some strides, but not enough. Someone who watched the film told me how it alternates between inspiring and disheartening. I think it’s a long struggle.
Look at where we are today in this country [the US]. You look at the news today, and you can be very disheartened. But you could also take a long perspective and look at the resistance to what’s going on. I think your perspective on world events is like a personal litmus test of how you view the world, whether you’re a pessimist or optimist.
One more question: now that Breaking Point is enjoying a release, do you have any other projects in the works.
Yeah, I do. I’ve been working on a film about the foster care system, produced by Participant Media. I’ve spent the last 1.5 years on production, but the whole project and research have been going for four years. I just came from color correction yesterday, we’ll mix it next week, and we’ll see what happens to it!
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Breaking Point releases March 2 in Los Angeles and March 9 in New York, followed by more US cities to be announced.
This interview was edited for clarity and style.
Correction: a previous version of this article misspelled the name of Paul Wolansky, the film’s co-writer.