“As far as Ukrainians are concerned, the war has been going on for eight years already,” the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa told Indiewire last month, soon after the Russian incursion into his country began. There is no more artful evidence than Loznitsa’s own fiction film Donbass, a vivid kaleidoscope of life in parts of Eastern Ukraine that have been controlled by Russian separatists since 2014. Made in 2018, the film is only now about to open in the US, is currently streaming in the UK; and it is timelier than ever. It is being promoted as a satire, which is fair enough, but now lands more like a documentary laced with Alice in Wonderland absurdism. Beyond offering valuable context for the war, Donbass reveals how art can be an intimate, eye-opening counterpart to what we’re seeing on the news.
The name Donbas, a region of Ukraine bordering Russia, now registers more than it might have two months ago because the area is a flashpoint of the ongoing war. Loznitsa’s film is set in 2015, a starting point of the conflict. The year before, separatists backed by Russia took control of the cities of Donetsk and Lahansk in the Donbas region, declaring them independent republics. Ever since, armed combat has continued between the Ukrainian army supported by volunteers, and the separatist troops supported by Russia. On 21 February of this year, when Vladimir Putin officially recognised those two republics, it was a prelude to his invasion of Ukraine three days later.
In 13 lively, loosely-connected episodes ranging from Grand Guignol humour to tragedy, the film depicts characters including separatist and Ukrainian soldiers with their tanks and guns, an ordinary businessman, and a drunken bride and groom. Loznitsa writes in a director’s note that he gathered real-life personal accounts and spun them into these representative, fictionalised stories. Although this is his fourth feature, he is also known for archival documentaries, including State Funeral (2019), about the national mourning after Stalin’s death. That documentarian’s instinct and his artistry combine beautifully in Donbass.
Loznitsa has lived in Germany for more than 20 years, but his loyalty is clear from the words that appear on screen to establish the film’s setting: “Occupied Territory, Eastern Ukraine.” The theme of lies and deception under authoritarian rule is established right away, too. The first vignette takes place in an actors’ make-up trailer, but we soon learn they are not cast in a movie. As they wait for their cue to move on to the street, we hear a blast. These actors are pretending to be horrified at a faked bus explosion, appearing in a bogus news report that will be glimpsed on TV in the background of a later scene. The connections between episodes are that fluid and sly. And the hand-held camera that tracks the actors running toward the explosion site adds a verité touch that Loznitsa uses effectively throughout.
There are some dark comic turns. In one of the most effective episodes, a Ukrainian man arrives at the Russian-controlled police headquarters to retrieve his stolen car. Instead, a police official asks him to sign the car over to the republic. The tone gradually darkens, as the illogical world of Alice in Wonderland gives way to that of Kafka. At first hapless and confused, the car owner realises that the official, in the way of all authoritarian regimes, is not really asking him a question.
But mordant humour is balanced by set pieces that are eerily close to today’s news reports. A woman on a bus is heard telling her seatmate that she is heading home to see how much of her house is left after the neighbourhood was shelled. Later, the film enters an underground city bomb shelter. A gaunt man guides us through as if talking to a reporter, revealing a dank, miserable place, without heat, running water or a working toilet.
In the most brutal, revealing episode, separatist soldiers chain a volunteer for the Ukrainian army, his face bloodied and the Ukrainian flag draped around his shoulders, to a pole on a busy city street. Young men jump out of a red car and taunt him. A granny pokes him with a stick and smashes a tomato in his face. Eventually a crowd gathers, beats him and yells “Kill him”. They also call him a fascist, just as other Russian loyalists in the film claim Ukraine is full of Nazis and fascists, echoing Putin’s discredited claim that Russia has now entered Ukraine to rid it of Nazi influences. The scene is the film’s most visceral, and a reminder of how complex the cultural situation is, with many ethnic Russians and loyalists in Donbas.
That episode leads into a garish, drunken wedding at a city hall, with a cackling middle-aged bride in white and her husband looking barely able to stand, surrounded by their Russian loyalist friends. The scene seems comic, but that sense soon curdles. The red car from the previous scene pulls up, with the belligerent guys as wedding guests. Amidst the raucous laughter, one of them pulls out his cell phone to gleefully show his friends video of the Ukrainian volunteer being beaten.
The mastery of tone and style explains why Loznitsa won the best director’s prize for Donbass in the Cannes Festival’s Un Certain Regard section. Still, for many of us, especially in the West, the film is likely to be confusing here and there. It would have been helpful, for example, if the subtitles had let us know who’s speaking Russian and who’s speaking Ukrainian. But it is worth a bit of confusion for a film so powerful and immediate, and made with such a lucid artistic vision.
In the news, the Russian defence ministry has stated that their “main goal” is now “the liberation of Donbas”, to officially take control. And recently, US intelligence reportedly learned that Russia’s immediate goal is to take over Donbas by early May. On screen, the film Donbass ends by returning to the make-up trailer where it started. You might guess that Loznitsa will reveal that everything so far has been faked, but no. The situations he presents are all too realistic and harrowing, as the fate of the people in the trailer makes clear.
Donbass opens in cinemas in the US on 8 April and is currently streaming on Prime Video in the UK.
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