October 18, 2018

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

…a coal-black freakish farce about the madness and complexity of civil war…


Greg Dolgopolov
Year: 2018
Rating: M
Director: Sergei Loznitsa

Valeriu Andriuta, Natalya Buzko, Evgeny Chistyakov, Georgiy Deliev

Distributor: Backlot Films
Released: October 18, 2018
Running Time: 122 minutes
Worth: $19.00

FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

…a coal-black freakish farce about the madness and complexity of civil war…

Donbass is a coal-black freakish farce about the madness and complexity of civil war made by a documentary auteur (Sergei Loznitsa), who constructed this fiction film from restaging real events from the conflict. It is a harrowing and edgy provocation through a war zone that presents material which could not be imagined even in the wildest nightmare.

Donbass in Eastern Ukraine is a coal producing, Soviet-style industrialised, predominately Russian speaking disputed region that since March 2014 has been in a strange civil war. The conflict is at once an info-war between competing Ukrainian, US/UK and Russian propaganda machines and armed clashes between the separatists and their Russian ‘volunteers’ and the Ukrainian army, leading to mass scale killings of civilians and soldiers on both sides.

Everything in war-torn Donbass is confusing and despite titles stating the locations of each of the story fragments, it is impossible to tell whose side we are on, where are the good guys and where are the bad guys, which is absolutely appropriate for a civil war and an avowedly anti-war film.

Much like Emir Kusturica’s black comedy farce, Underground (1995) but without the Balkan brass bands, this is a film about the grotesquery of war. Divided into 12 vignettes that cumulatively combine to paint a complex, interwoven brutal picture of the Donbass region, Loznitsa’s fascinating hybrid documentary format interweaves these fragmentary stories, many of which he found online while researching this project. The reconstructions are performed by 26 actors and the rest by local residents.

Sergei Loznitsa won the Best Director prize at Cannes Un Certain Regard, designed to acknowledge edgy films. Donbass is also Ukraine’s official submission for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ at the Academy Awards in 2019. Loznitsa said, “My main concern and my main subject is the particular type of human being, which is produced by a society, where aggression, decay, and disintegration rule.”

Donbass is the theatre of contemporary war and war as theatre, where a captured Ukrainian ‘extermination squad volunteer’ is tied to a lamp post and people are encouraged to humiliate, beat him and then take selfies. Then the bus comes, people disperse, and we learn nothing more about the older man, who admits to volunteering, but only in the kitchen. The buses still work in war zones. It is savage and mundane.

The opening scene takes place in a makeup trailer where actors are being made to look like ordinary people, they grumble and complain as they are costumed to look even more miserable and down-trodden than they are. They are then rushed out by the first AD to get ‘on location’ to perform as shocked citizens after a bombing in a city street, providing a commentary on the events, while behind them lies the carnage of burning trucks. Who are they? Are they real people or actors and whose fake news agenda are they serving?

A German war correspondent is harassed at the border. The guard is ecstatic. He has caught a fascist. But after being reprimanded by the female commander he returns the German journalist’s passport and solemnly declares, “if you aren’t a fascist then your grandfather was definitely a fascist!” The allegiances of the old war, old enmities and tribal hatred inform the new war. The shaken journalist then tries to ask a group of soldiers eating pickled cucumbers, “Who is in charge?” It descends into a school yard game where each successive soldier, laughing uproariously denies being in charge. Even the commander denies it before pointing out a tough talking Cossack who provides an expletive fuelled tirade about war without claiming to be in charge of anything.

In another scene a ‘businessman’ who clearly made his money illegally is trying to get his fancy jeep back from the People’s Army; he just can not comprehend that his car is being expropriated for the cause of the defenders of his motherland by a tough guy who is sorting through a mound of mobile phones and is ready to jail the businessman who just doesn’t get that there is a new power structure in place now and he, like the room full of other businessmen, will need to find a new way to negotiate.

A political meeting is interrupted when a large woman enters and empties a bucket of excrement on the Speaker’s head allegedly for writing libellous material about her and undermining her reputation.

Elsewhere, a state official explains to a packed room at a maternity hospital the reasons why they do not have food for the staff and patients and the whereabouts of the missing medications. It is a long scene. He is deliberate in every reveal. He finds a common enemy and destroys the former head doctor’s reputation and once he has pacified the masses, enters an ante chamber and the very man who he was denouncing is there with a bribe and gratitude.

In another part of the city we enter damp catacombs that are full of people who have escaped their demolished apartments. They are living as if during the blockade. The poverty and desperation and illness are all around. The scene is filmed as if for the first time a cameraman has been able to get to these people who seem not to have dared to venture outside for months. And then an attractive blonde in stilettos and a fur coat enters with bags of luxury food items for her mother who she desperately tries to convince to leave the flea pit. But her mother is silently stoic. She is not leaving. She disappears in a room with a metal door and this attractive blonde is left howling all manner of obscenities while kicking at the door with her stilettos before racing off to her desk job where she evaluates a religious mission that seems to want to donate a precious icon to the cause but seeking a procession of Mercedes’ to commemorate the event.

Ah the madness of war! This material is so much stranger than fiction and it is observed with an at times awkward eye of a solo video journalist trying to capture a story but with limited resources; where the edits appear odd, but the overall experience is mesmeric. Serious moments are blankly juxtaposed with farce and the absence of a narrative provides us with the clearest passage in this descent and journey through hell.

The expectation of bias and taking sides will be an inevitable outcome. We expect war films to have a point of view, to shape heroes and victors and to generate a mythology under which non-compliant narratives are dismissed. But Donbass is cleverly far more complex, and its director and his background deserve context.

Sergei Loznitsa was born in Belorussia, completed his education in mathematics in Ukraine and worked at the Cybernetics Institute specialising in Artificial Intelligence before turning to study filmmaking in Russia and becoming a highly respected archival documentarian. His documentary films, made up of newsreels and documentary fragments, were restrained, minimalist and often faintly nostalgic portraits of an era that has quietly slipped away. The films were laser-focused observations of the past that shaped a critique of the era in the gaps between the propaganda and the private slippages and incongruities of the images – all this without any authorial commentary or exposition, which made for rigorous and demanding viewing.

His films won awards. Loznitsa’s first fiction film, My Joy (2010) was the darkest, bleakest and most grotesque Russian set road movie imaginable, that interwove a story about a police checkpoint and a truck driver with the violence of WW2 and contemporary military and police corruption and the depravity of people in the regions. A co-production between Germany, Ukraine and the Netherlands, but set somewhere in Western Russia, the film was far more depressing than anything that Andrei Zvyagintsev could dream up.

Western festival viewers may see this film as an exploration of the genealogy of evil set in the recognisable rubble of the post-Soviet world that continues to fuel arthouse fetishisation of the failures of the Soviet Union and its brutal outcomes. While in the Russian media, Loznitsa’s formal filmmaking qualities were recognised and he was awarded the best film prize at the prestigious Kinotavr film festival. The film was accused of a depraved Russophobia (it was shot in Ukraine as apparently, they couldn’t find a setting that was sufficiently dark and debauched enough in Russia). All this is to say that Loznitsa is now considered a Ukrainian auteur and often focuses his attention on presenting a special critique of post-Soviet dysfunction and grotesquery and is by implication considered to be anti-Russian.

What is remarkable about this film is that it is about the performance of fake news, propaganda, corruption and madness of civil war. There is no ambiguity about Loznitsa’s position – this film is unequivocally antiwar. More than likely it is going to be a troubling for everyone concerned – it is uncomplimentary to all sides of the conflict. It shows the confusion and depravity of war at the same time as how mundane and ordinary life can be under this situation.

A kid sits on a full bus going between checkpoints playing a computer game and the soundtrack to this war is his first-person shooter.

This is a grotesque and yet stunningly timely film that will not make the conflict in Donbass clearer, but it will reveal the madness that civilised people will descend to under the perverse conditions of war. It is superbly crafted, harrowing and bleakly farcical. This is not a tale of one region, one country or one political system. It is about a world, lost in post-truth and fake identities. It is about each and every one of us. A must see on the big screen!


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