The old saying goes about not making a drama out of a crisis; thankfully, there’s nothing similar about making a black comedy out of one instead, which is just as well where Sergei Loznitsa’s darkly comic 2018 film Donbass is concerned.
To get a feeling for the movie, you first have to understand the backdrop to the action. The Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine is the site of an ongoing conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists, who comprise the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
The situation began in 2013, when the Ukrainian government rejected a close association with the EU, and they looked to instead form closer links with Russia. Following chaos caused by mass protests, Russian forces annexed the Crimea, and pro-Russian separatists took control of the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, declaring themselves independent of Ukraine.
A peace agreement was reached in 2015, with a Security Zone established after a ceasefire. However, despite all the good intentions, the ceasefire is breached on a daily basis, and the Security Zone is one of the deadliest places in Ukraine. Russia is eager to annex Ukraine back into itself, having previously been a part of Russia, and subsequently the Soviet Union until its collapse.
Writer and director Sergei Loznitsa has a connection to the subject matter, through his 2014 documentary Maidan, about the Euromaidan movement which provided a catalyst for the current situation in the country. The film provided a record of the mass public demonstrations which took place in Kiev’s Independence Square, in response to the Ukrainian government’s decision to draw closer to Russia, so the documentary effectively acts as a prequel of sorts to Donbass, as it provides context and background to the events which we see unfolding here.
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Although using the ongoing conflict as a backdrop for this fictional piece, it gives an insight into what it must be like to be in a war zone, where life could be taken at any moment. Loznitsa shows a society which has, by any conventional measure, broken down; yet, at the same time, there exists a different form of society which has risen up in its place, adapting to the changed circumstances. It’s a window on what can happen when civilisation hangs over the precipice of a dangerous moral vacuum.
In Donbass, corruption exists on every level and strata, from politicians virtually all the way down to the man (or woman) on the street, doing whatever they can to survive. The precarious lack of a defined moral compass is reflected best here in a painfully uncomfortable sequence, where mob rule takes full effect after one of the enemy combatants is paraded in public – the scene slowly builds, as the members of the growing crowd goad each other on, and whip each other up into a near-rabid, hysterical frenzy.
Modern wars are fought on many fronts, with one of them being in propaganda or information. Recently our global culture has shifted, and thanks to the Leader of the Free World, the concept of ‘fake news’ has gained considerable traction, to the extent that it’s become a part of our daily lexicon. That theme runs strongly through Donbass, as we get to see how reality has become subjective, being manufactured and carefully cultivated for corrupt and devious ends.
However, there is also adversity of spirit in times of war, and the film also gives us specks of light and hope in amongst all of the carnage, horror and relentless toll of living through conflict. It’s easy to forget that people have to go about their daily lives, and we see them doing mundane things such as queuing for buses, which helps connect us to them. We also get to see a wedding in one of the vignettes, giving some respite from the reality of things, and presenting us with some joy and humanity.
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Donbass is by no means an easy watch at times, but that’s only right; it challenges us as viewers, and lets us take a look at an unfamiliar world, as well as educating us about events which are still current but, even so, may not be known to the outside world. The fact that Loznitsa manages to open our eyes to the full horror of what’s going on right now is worthy of note, and makes the film easily worth two hours of your time.
Donbass is available now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.