Donbass (2018) – Film Review
Director: Sergei Loznitsa
Cast: Valeriu Andruita, Nina Antonova, Valeriy Antonyuk
by James Robinson
In a trailer on a movie set, an irritable middle-aged actress is hectoring the make-up artists. ‘Why do you all look so miserable?’ she asks her co-stars, before a runner turns up and harries them into the street. Here the cause of their misery becomes immediately apparent: to get to where they are going they must first dodge a hail of gunfire and explosions, ducking into an alleyway as bits of wall disintegrate around them. Eventually they arrive at their destination: an inner-city street in which a bombed-out bus is smouldering, surrounded by soldiers. This is no film set: the actors are being wheeled out to deliver propaganda vox-pops to the waiting news cameras.
Thus is established the acid tone of Sergei Loznitsa’s satirical anthology. Donbass is the region of eastern Ukraine where civil war erupted between nationalists and pro-Russian separatists in 2014, and the film comprises a series of bleak but darkly absurd vignettes illustrating the effects of this conflict on the region’s population, focusing on small incidents that reflect on the situation at large.
“Funny if it wasn’t so frightening”
As you might expect, these vignettes are invariably disturbing and deeply cynical: an official of some sort apologises to the staff of a maternity hospital for the black-marketeering of one of their doctors, only to be revealed to be in cahoots with the doctor himself; a politician has a bucket of effluent poured over his head in revenge for an unflattering article placed in the press; the male passengers of a bus are given the choice of being framed as ‘fascists’ or press-ganged into joining the army.
There is something of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 in the logical loopholes and quasi-bureaucratic tangles the ordinary citizens of Donbass find themselves in. The scene in which a hapless ‘small businessman’ turns up at the police station to retrieve his stolen car, only to realise too late that it has been used to lead him and dozens of others into an extortion racket, would be funny if it wasn’t so frightening. Although the film advertises itself as a black comedy this is very much the rueful humour that can only come with direct experience of life within the chaos of a warzone.
It makes for a grimly compelling watch, although the abrupt tonal shifts lend the film a queasy atmosphere. A harrowing sequence in which a man accused of being an enemy soldier is tied to a lamp-post and abused by increasingly enraged locals is then followed by an absurdly broad scene in which a grotesque couple referred to in the subtitles as ‘Mr and Mrs Fried Egg’ engage in a vulgar wedding ceremony.
Loznitsa is best known for his documentaries, and Donbass is characterised by its detached, matter-of-fact presentation. The camera often suggests a first person perspective which, in the film’s most brutal moments, implicates the viewer in the events onscreen. This is a powerful technique that suits such heavy subject matter; however it is also reflective of a largely alienating quality that is further exacerbated by a sense that much of the film’s major points are being lost on anyone not already familiar the intricacies of the ongoing Ukrainian conflict and the culture of that region in general.
‘Donbass’ is released on Blu-ray by Eureka, £12.99