Focus on Donbass

From Donbass movie

"We're living in the Stone Age." Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s latest release, Donbass –screened at the opening of the Un Certain Regard section as part of the 71st edition of Cannes Film Festival – is a revealing portrait of a region in disrepair, threatened by extortion on all sides, plagued by corruption and survival of the fittest. A region in which local residents are simply trying to survive, surrounded by heavily-armed men in camouflage, and stuck between checkpoints where danger is omnipresent. A film that depicts horrendous realities that are as satirical as they are dramatic. A fictional landscape inspired by real events that took place in eastern Ukraine between 2014 and 2015, where a tragic civil war played out – a situation the director has chosen to depict with 13 intricately-linked episodes and dry humour that occasionally turns into very dark farce.

Surreptitiously broaching the question of truth throughout the multi-dimensional story written by the writer-director himself, Loznitsa certainly doesn’t do things by halves when evoking the chaos unfolding in Donbass, which is akin to a real-life open-air zoo. The area is overflowing with sombre looks (in every sense of the word), menacing mafiosi, uniformed gate-keepers going wild over the fascism of the enemy, corrupt politicians, and so on. And the ordinary citizens, who are like rays of light in this dark world, are at the mercy of the least bombed, as well as looting, extortion, forced recruitment, point-proving punishment and enforced decisions ("Whose side are you on?). A criminal environment that has obviously rubbed off on the minds of many, and an atmosphere that is abruptly summed up by a scene in which a woman accused of corruption by the press is publicly shamed by other local authorities, who pour shit on an MP’s head, causing a war profiteer to chuckle, before standing in front of a group of midwifery healthcare professionals, pretending to right various wrongs, and then heading into the wings to pick up an envelope.

The entire film goes on like this, one grinding episode after the next, a cruel deforming reflection, put together with the mastery that the director has already demonstrated many times before. And in this film in particular, the director gives us several superb sequences, not to mention some beautifully framed shots, as well as his usual fascinating work with off-screen sound. However, Donbass’s irregularity does sometimes harm its genius. Some passages are a little lengthy and dialogue-heavy, and let’s not forget the absence of main characters, which makes specific empathy somewhat difficult, except for the more general empathy we feel for the residents of a region who are caught up in a hothouse of fratricidal war (with the sly presence of a few Russian soldiers and a press that is either taken to task or arrives after the battle). Nevertheless, these are only minor issues for a fragmentary attempt, which includes some beautiful cinematography, and in which the filmmaker hashes out a denunciation of the dark forces undermining his country, in true baroque style.

Produced by Ma.Ja.De Filmproduktions-GmbH (Germany), Arthouse Traffic (Ukraine), JBA Production (France), Graniet Film (the Netherlands), Wild at Art (the Netherlands), Atoms & Void (the Netherlands) et Digital Cube Post-Production (the UK), Donbass is being sold internationally by Pyramide International.