Written for RAF News May 2019
A series of short vignettes link together this satirical social commentary set in present day eastern Ukraine, depicting the chaos caused by propaganda and corruption.
The Donbass region is shown pulled apart by civil war, Russian- backed separatists occupy territories with armed soldiers patrolling every street in the name of fighting fascism – though the term ‘facist’ is banded about quite freely and the sides aren’t too clear.
There is a farcical quality that feels nonetheless genuine in Sergei Loznitsa’s film, which makes it all the more frightening. It seems there is common understanding among the people to take any official announcement with a heap of salt. They have a prescribed scepticism that reads as hopeless confusion: no-one believes what they are told but they daren’t speak out.
The film opens in a make-up trailer full of actors being prepped to play innocent bystanders in what turns out to be a staged attack for a news crew. Instructed by belligerent producers with the heft of soldiers, it is revealed that these extras haven’t even been paid, they are practically prisoners of the state. And yet this is all delivered with a sly sense of humour.
There is a visit from a black leather jacketed official to a maternity clinic, reassuring the staff that there are in fact medical supplies, they’re just in the doctors office, in a fridge packed with sausages, beside many other such rations. The doctor must have taken them to sell on the side. This may be true but later he is seen rubbing shoulders with the official himself.
Other segments consist of politicians squabbling over bribes, journalists struggling to get answers from anyone, a tour of a bomb-shelter in the heart of the war-zone to a bizarre wedding ceremony that has the feel of a football game. The tone veers from darkly funny to plainly dark, especially in one brutal extended scene that shows a supposed defector tied to a post in order to receive beatings from the public.
With it’s contrasting chapters and intermittent humour, Donbass is fittingly confusing. There are shocking moments sprinkled among the more amusing absurdity, which might overwhelm or distance the viewer, but the message is unmistakeable.