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.