Donbass, a film from prolific Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, is a series of 13 vignettes which take place in the namesake eastern region of Ukraine. In the wake of the 2014 Maidan Revolution, armed uprisings amongst the Russian-speaking segment of the population resulted in the formation of the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Since then, the Ukrainian army and associated militias have battled Russian-supported separatist groups for control of Donbass. It’s against this backdrop that Loznitsa sets his anthology — it’s fictional, but each segment based on a some real event, or stories about them. (Though the movie’s continued concern with the creation of “fake news” is a bit ironic, given the anecdotal nature of some of the material for these episodes.)
The thing is, Donbass is not new. It once seemed to be the definition of a film that came around and then went into obscurity, one among countless others each year. It ran the festival circuit in 2018, was Ukraine’s submission that year for Best International Feature Film (at the time the award was still called “Best Foreign Language Feature”; Donbass was not nominated), and ultimately never received a real release in the US. But then this year Russia invaded Ukraine — a drastic escalation of the wider conflict of which the Donbass war has been but one part — and suddenly this movie seems much more relevant. Now, years after its premiere, it’s at last getting a theatrical run.
The unifying theme of the disparate stories that make up Donbass is the mundane, often terrifying absurdity of everyday life in a war zone. In the film’s press notes, Loznitsa describes its point of view as “a distorted reflection in a curved mirror of the underground world.” A press conference is disrupted when a protestor upends a bucketful of shit onto a journalist; rather than be removed from the premises, she then gets into an argument with another worker from the same newspaper. A wedding is less a celebration of the bride and groom than it is of “Novorossiya.” A captured Ukrainian soldier is paraded about for public ridicule which escalates into violence. In the aftermath of a massacre, a film crew swoops in to spin it for the purposes of the local separatist government.
Loznitsa has dabbled before in fiction, but he primarily works in documentary — films about nationalist celebrations, the strange vibes of tourists at concentration camp sites, protest movements, and more. He brings that aesthetic to his survey of Donbass, working mainly in observational long takes full of meticulously simulated low-level chaos. Each scene is full of myriad visual and audial details, a convincing facsimile of on-the-ground confusion amidst a busy event. That realism contrasts sharply with the seeming unreality of the commonplace violence the characters encounter (or perpetuate).
Donbass has been praised in other quarters for its “timeliness,” but I would caution against using any film, much less one from 2018 that portrays fictionalized spins on events from before then, to understand the current events in Ukraine. The background info on Donbass above is already a drastically simplified summary of a hideously complicated situation, and the events of an active invasion are vastly different from those of an ongoing sectarian conflict. In some ways, the fact that Donbass is only receiving attention now, years after the fact, further highlights the mass hypocrisy in all the coverage that has suddenly come to a region that’s been roiled by such violence for years, all because it suddenly became a lot flashier. Still, it’s a fitfully effective attempt to put one inside the headspace that comes with living in a surreal, disquieting realm.
Donbass is now playing in select theaters.
Your list of must-see, fun, insightful, and very New York art events this month, including art made during the first stock market crash, a homage to feline friends, and the 10-year anniversary of a crucial public art initiative.
Astrid Dick was told that she could not paint stripes because Sean Scully and Frank Stella have done so before her, a patently foolish statement.
Hrag Vartanian, Hyperallergic’s editor-in-chief, is one of the guest jurors reviewing applications for the two-month residency in Utica, New York.
Paddy Johnson answers your questions about art fairs, visibility, and frustrating studio visits.
The 26th Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival’s Philippines retrospective highlights early documentation of the country, local responses to the Marcos dictatorship, and contemporary work.
Hear a band of improvisers led by Rajna Swaminathan and a performance of Morton Feldman’s “For John Cage” in programs inspired by the exhibition, “New York: 1962-1964.”
The country music legend says the museum will be part of a “Dolly Center.”
Herzog and de Meuron’s design for the Museum of the 20th Century in Berlin has been accused of poor energy efficiency and called a “structural nightmare.”
From residencies, fellowships, and workshops to grants, open calls, and commissions, our monthly list of opportunities for artists, writers, and art workers.
Looking for some holiday gift inspiration? We’ve got you covered with this roundup of accessories, games, and more that have been flying off the shelf this season.
SCAD’s booth at Design Miami/ features glazed tiles by alumni artists Nicolas Barrera, Lauren Clay, Gonzalo Hernandez, Cory Imig, Abel Macias, and Nikita Nagpal.
Plaintiff Cheri Pierson accuses the disgraced financier of a “brutal” sexual attack at the Manhattan mansion of Jeffrey Epstein.
At the heart of What if the Matriarchy Was Here All Along? is the idea that matriarchy never really died but rather has transformed.