Sergei Loznitsa doesn’t make easy films. He’s a prolific director, averaging a couple of films a year, with a combination of documentaries and fiction work. His previous narrative feature was the rather punishing satire A Gentle Creature, which delivered an ice cold bath of disorientating chilliness, en route to a finale that used gratuitous shock tactics in service of a metaphor that wasn’t nearly as original as the director believed. Donbass is a more expansive and wide-ranging movie – and it’s a better one as a result.
The title refers to a particular region of Ukraine that has been dogged by armed conflict since 2014, as the pro-Russian separatists of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic battle the Ukrainian government. Loznitsa guides the audience through 13 disparate episodes, focusing on everything from tense military stand-offs, to the squalor of a civilian shelter and a grotesquely opulent wedding ceremony.
Where A Gentle Creature was a grey trudge through Kafkaesque bureaucracy, Donbass flirts with multiple tones, from black comedy through to escalating tension and brutality. Its portmanteau approach allows Loznitsa to conjure an unusual patchwork quilt of fake news, poverty and violence that captures a desperate society in flux. Like any deliberately episodic film, though, there are stronger and weaker segments, with some fizzling to nothing while others cannot last long enough.
The film begins in a make-up van, with actors prepared for what we quickly learn is a fake news bulletin, set to be released as part of a propaganda effort. Combined with separatist soldiers later yelling in the face of a German journalist that he should “write the truth”, as well as a bizarre, endless scene in which an official tries to dupe medical staff into believing new supplies have always been there, it’s part of a theme around today’s ‘alternative facts’ era that works very well. Unfortunately, it soon becomes a smaller part of the movie than it initially appears set to be.
Loznitsa is fascinated by the inner workings of the ‘Novorussiya’ – New Russia – regime, in a reflection of the same focus on bureaucracy that characterised A Gentle Creature. These segments, however, stall the momentum of the film, which is far more compelling when it shines a spotlight on the ordinary people who are affected by the turmoil. The aforementioned journey through a squalid shelter, which is full of mould and has no running water, is an affecting sequence of dark realism, while the wedding scene – perhaps a trifle lengthy – showcases the euphoria of those who completely buy into the Novorussiya way of life.
The most potent and memorable sequence, though, occurs when an ageing man is taken prisoner by the separatists and is alleged to have been part of a fascist “extermination squad”. Draped in the Ukrainian flag, he is verbally berated by a passing group of young men, who are seen taking selfies with his battered form, egging each other on to deliver a brutal beating. The scene escalates in tension, violence and intensity as a mob forms and the true power of propaganda becomes gruesomely clear. By the time the film comes full circle, back around to the make-up truck, Loznitsa has made his point.
There’s a clear argument in Donbass about the corrupting power of misinformation and propaganda that could not be more timely. However, by using the portamanteau style, Loznitsa introduces a variable tone and level of quality that ensures the movie has lengthy periods of downtime in which little impact is made. When it hits though, the film hits hard.
Dir: Sergei Loznitsa
Scr: Sergei Loznitsa
Cast: Boris Kamorzin, Irina Plesnyaeva, Olesya Zhurakovskaya, Alexander Zamurayev, Valery Antoniuk
Prd: Heino Deckert
DOP: Oleg Mutu
Country: Germany, Ukraine, France, Netherlands, Romania
Run time: 122 mins
Donbass is in UK cinemas now.