I was first alerted to the extraordinarily brave and straight-forward filmmaking style of the young Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa a couple of years ago, having watched his 2017 movie Krotkaya (A Gentle Creature) – a heart-breaking story of a young Russian country woman who travels to a remote town where her husband had been serving a prison term. Loznitsa’s merciless portrayal of the provincial life in modern Russia was precise, disturbing and outright scary, but – first and foremost – it was so brutally honest that it could be compared to reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for the first time.
It would be tempting to draw similar parallels between Donbass, Loznitsa’s latest cinematic outing, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The former is set amid the ongoing hybrid war over the control of the Donbas (or Donbass) – Ukraine’s major industrial and coal-mining area. Since the start of the conflict in March 2014, two puppet rubber-stamp ‘people’s republics’ – the DNR and the LNR – had been established by the armed gangs of so-called ‘separatists’. In Loznitsa’s case, however, such a hypothetical epic should have been called ‘War and War’, for there is very little – if any – peace in Donbass. The cruel and entirely pointless confrontation has already cut short 13,000 human lives and shows no sign of resolution.
Donbass is compulsory viewing. Shot in a style that combines Fellini’s neo-realism with pseudo-documentary footage, the film never fails to evoke the unrehearsed and frighteningly real war-time atmosphere – the effect much enhanced by the near-absence of professional actors and the proliferation of extras recruited from the long-suffering Donbass population. Significantly, the film portrays neither heroes nor winners. All the characters in its loosely connected 13 stories that make up the film are victims of sorts, even if many of those are simultaneously the villains.
For someone like myself, watching Donbass was almost physically painful. The realities of the area where both the film and the war are set, the landscape, the architecture, the soft southern accent of the residents and, most importantly, the faces – all are familiar and recognisable. It is here, in its extreme authenticity, that some of Donbass’ critics see the film’s weakest point. ‘A work of art must be inspirational – not vomit-inducing and scary,’ they say. Well, that may be true, but it can also inspire hope, for prior to cleaning up, people must face the mess they have themselves created. For that, Donbass is an un-distorted mirror through which this indescribable mess can be viewed.
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