In Donbass Sergei Loznitsa’s anger at the war in eastern Ukraine pours out in 13 episodes of a vicious cycle of dark comedy, absurdity, brutality and horror.
War is peaceby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In the same week that Donbass is released, Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelensky scored a landslide victory in the country’s presidential election. A political novice, he is best known for starring in a satirical television series Servant of the People, in which his character accidentally becomes Ukrainian president. He told reporters he would “reboot” peace talks with the separatists in a Putin-backed separatist movement fighting Ukrainian forces and volunteers in the east.
Set amid the social breakdown in those war-torn eastern provinces, Donbass shows civilians and army factions ground down, dehumanised, battered and confused as violence and propaganda wars go unchecked and corruption flourishes. It’s a kind of confused, hopeless hell on earth.
The film starts with a group of actors (the main speaker Tamara Yatsenko) in a make-up trailer, being readied to create fake eyewitness vox pops on a street explosion for television news – these are later shown on a television in the background of another scene. At a council meeting, a libelled woman (Olesya Zhurakovskaya) empties a bucket of shit over the chairman. In a maternity hospital, a local profiteer (Boris Kamorzin) boasts about the stocks of medicine, whilst revealing collusion with the doctor.
Everywhere in the country there are roadblocks manned by a variety of factions – hard to tell if the soldiers are Ukrainian or Russian imports – and buses full of passengers hoping to find out if their old homes are still standing after the bombing are peremptorily halted to solicit bribes or for a female officer to press-gang men into the militia. A German journalist is reviled as a hereditary fascist. People live permanently in underground bomb shelters in primitive conditions rather than risk life above. A hapless businessman (Alexander Zamurayev) tries to reclaim his car that has been unofficially requisitioned by the military only to find more is required.
In the most stomach-churning scene, a captured, Ukrainian so-called fascist exterminator (Valery Antoniuk) is tied to a lamp post for a growing mob of passers-by to abuse. And there’s a grotesque wedding in the shadow of the new national flag conducted according to the new rules of Novorossiya, the Russian-instigated newly separatist provinces.
It’s a nightmare country at the mercy of unpredictable, volatile military men of all kinds and corrupt local bureaucrats, where the currency is bribery and not to know what new rules are is perilous. Ordinary people keep their heads down as best they can while mines explode all around them.
As in László Nemes’s Sunset or Son of Saul Oleg Mutu’s hand-held camera moves so that we are part of it all, plunged headfirst into experiences that get increasingly worse. War has become a performance where mass confusion creates the blurred lines that make truth and the post-truth world indistinguishable. Donbass ends in a breathtaking, long-take final scene that brings us full circle. Did what we see really happen, was it seen and heard or staged? Like Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature, Donbass is an ultra-full-on shattering experience.
Donbass premiered in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won Best Director, and is released on 26 April 2019 in the UK, on VOD from 29 April and in a Blu-ray format on 24 June 2019.