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Film review: Sergey Loznitsa’s new picture is an absurdist, terrifying trip to the separatist-controlled world of eastern Ukraine

Meduza
Cannes Film Festival

Sergey Loznitsa’s new film “Donbass” was screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The film shows life in the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics both during and after the war's most violent phase in 2014 and 2015. Meduza’s film critic, Anton Dolin, says the movie won’t please many Russian and Ukrainian viewers, but that doesn't make the motion picture any less frightening, paradoxical, or outstanding.

Calling something “the bomb” is usually high praise, which Sergey Loznitsa’s new film certainly deserves, but bombs aren’t just metaphorical in the Donbass, where the threat of an explosion is real, and the big question is still when or if the bomb will go off.

The armed conflict in the Donbass isn’t a familiar subject to most moviegoers in Europe and the U.S., and Russian and Ukrainian audiences might turn their backs on this film for other reasons. Loznitsa’s picture has no sympathy for anyone with the slightest role in the “hybrid war.” Audiences will find an exceptionally uncomfortable film from the director of “My Joy” and “A Gentle Creature.” Loznitsa is an outstanding documentary filmmaker, who has finally turned his hand to feature films.

The present-day Donbass — namely the self-declared Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk (the film uses the slightly outdated term “Novorossiya”) — is located in a grey zone, and not just in the legal sense. This space exists somewhere between fantasy and reality, between a dreamland and a nightmare. You might call this place a neutral zone between two warring states, if all the shooting and killing that happens here didn’t render meaningless the word “neutral.” Reality is without identification markers, like the “little green men,” or the mysterious “vacationers.”

The theater of war, with an emphasis on the word “theater”: its stagedness is what Loznitsa uncovers in his film. And it’s not for nothing that many of the actors who appear in this movie (both professional and amateur) are favorites of the surrealist Ukrainian director Kira Muratova, such as the comedians Natalya Buzko and Georgi Deliyev. In this staged space, casting masters of commedia dell’arte was never more appropriate.

The first characters you meet in Loznitsa’s film are a gaggle of extras packed into some film crew’s trailer. You soon find out that these people have been dressed up as “eyewitnesses” for a news report — they’re foot soldiers on the propaganda front. And you find yourself asking: Is the front itself actually real? The lady with the drawn-on black eye, rambling wildly about something for the camera, is pretty straightforward, but what about the bodies and the exploded bus over her shoulder? Are those real? Unsettling, thoroughly surreal, but filmed with a dispassionate documentary touch, as if by a surveillance camera, the end of the movie answers this disturbing question.

There are actors and people in disguise everywhere in this film. Even one of the border guards goes by the nickname “The Artist.” Everyone plays a role, but there are some roles nobody wants to play. In one scene, a German journalist walks up to several separatists who are sitting on a tank and eating pickles. He asks them a simple question (“Who’s in charge here?”), but he can’t get a straight answer. Like in a children’s game, the warriors point fingers at each other and laugh, and then they lead the confused foreigner to a colorful “Cossack ataman” who goes by the name “Chapai” (after the Red Army Civil War commander Vasily Chapayev).

Most of the characters in the film are nameless, and there are more nicknames than names: Batianya (Pops), Gyurza (Viper), Kupon (a predecessor currency to today’s Ukrainian hryvnia), Drovosek (Woodcutter). In a climactic wedding scene, a bridal couple registers their marriage under their real names, and the names are so incredibly flamboyant that it’s like they were lifted out of a Gogol story: Angela Tikhonovna Kuperdiagina marries Ivan Pavlovich Yaichnitsa. If you found out that Loznitsa borrowed the names from some documentary footage, you wouldn’t be surprised.

“Donbass” clip from Cannes

Loznitsa’s picture comprises a series of terrifying, grotesque, hyperrealistic frescoes, all masterfully filmed by his longtime collaborator, cameraman Oleg Mutu. The scenes aren’t connected by a single plot, but they share a common space. In one scene, a little warlord in a leather jacket loses his cool at a third-rate maternity ward where the head doctor steals food and medicine. In another scene, a pair of border guards mock a civilian who’s returned to the Donbass to see his relatives and find out if his family’s home is still standing. The movie also features a charmless local businessman who loses his fancy car to the authorities and still gets squeezed for a kickback. And there’s the Ukrainian soldier who’s led through the streets wearing a sign that says “Volunteer soldier in the Punitive Battalion,” before he’s tied to a lamppost, so people can let off steam by jeering at him. There’s barely a breath between the shifts from comedy to horror.

Apart from this silent bearded man, almost no other “Ukrainians” appear on screen, though you hear their gunfire and explosions crackling and rumbling in the distance. “Donbass” clearly wasn’t filmed to make a political point and justify the actions of the Ukrainian military. Loznitsa is simply interested primarily in the “Novorossiya” side of the conflict. It would be interesting to imagine a sequel filmed from the other side of the barricades.

That said, there’s nothing ambiguous about the director’s views here: “Donbass” is a distinctly anti-war film that in no way justifies organized violence on any side of the conflict. The picture shows how war maims people and turns men into monsters, simultaneously comic and horrific. For Loznitsa, the ones who maintain their dignity are the people who refuse any role in the violence.

There’s one memorable moment in “Donbass” where the camera revolves around the twisted wreckage of what was a homeless shelter, and the audience doesn’t know if it’s watching the next scene in the film or non-diegetic footage recorded by characters in the movie for their own, no doubt mercenary, reasons. No less than the nature of modern warfare, Loznitsa’s picture is devoted to the mass media, to social networks, and to other media that turn war into a show. This itself makes “Donbass” an impossible paradox, giving us a film about something that can’t and shouldn’t become “just another movie.”

I don’t know if the Cannes Film Festival deliberately premiered “Donbass” on May 9 (the day Russia celebrates the USSR’s victory over Nazi Germany). It’s hard to forget that Loznitsa’s last documentary, filmed in Berlin's Treptower Park a year ago, was called “Victory Day,” and it was dedicated to the holiday after which it is named. His new movie features a relentless stream of rhetoric similar to contemporary Russian propaganda (broadly defined as “our grandfathers fought the Nazis”), while showing the insurmountable distance between a war with meaning and today’s “hybrid” modification, which is distinctly absurd and equally cruel to all participants. The main unspoken question in “Donbass” is whether a war like this can end in a Victory Day. Or will any end be a defeat?

Text by Anton Dolin, translation by James Whittingham and Kevin Rothrock