Many of the so-called separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk region are really Russian military out of uniform. What are the implications for Russian-speakers who chose to support this illegal military operation? Nothing short of the death of civil society and the beginning of their own oppression. That is the inescapable takeaway that comes through loud and clear in Belorussian-born, formerly Russian-based Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, Ukraine’s official foreign language Oscar submission, which screens as the opening night film of this year’s First Look at MoMI.
Disinformation (the term “fake news” makes it sound trivial) is a major theme running through Donbass. As the film opens, a group of extras are in makeup, awaiting their closeups in a bogus Russian news report about a phony “fascist” bus bombing (torched by the Russian propagandists themselves). It is crude, yet somewhat effective.
Thus, begins a rondo-style film, in which members of the would-be Russian breakaway puppet-state confront their new masters. We see paramilitaries menace the German journalist their commanders are trying to favorably impress. One of the new political wheeler-dealers tries to make a show for the staff and media of a stockpile of supplies supposedly confiscated from the former hospital director, but nobody is buying it (least of all him).
In one of the film’s most potent and stinging sequences, a Russian-inclined small business owner learns what happens when he tries to assert his rights and claim the van appropriated by the separatist paramilitaries. Viewers familiar with Loznitsa’s work will see shades of My Joy in a narrative arc that out as a satire of bureaucracy, but quickly evolves into a blend of Kafkaesque and Orwellian horror. Perhaps the most damning but least overtly political segment chronicles the rowdy marriage ceremony of two ghoulish crude supporters of the new Russian-backed regime. Here we see shades of the grotesque absurdity he previously unleashed in A Gentle Creature.
Yet, frame-for-frame and second-for-second, easily the most horrifying segment dramatizes the public pillorying of a Ukrainian self-defense force volunteer captured by the Russian-controlled separatist gangs. The brutal beatings and humiliations meted down on him are a sickening spectacle, which his tormentors gleefully record on their smart phones. It is a staggering sequence of cinema, anchored by the silent dignity of Valery Antoniuk’s performance as the tortured prisoner.
Yet, the kicker is the wrap-around conclusion that returns to the actors appearing in the propaganda reports. What happens to them makes it bitingly clear those collaborating with the Russians are only sowing the seeds of their own misery. It is a brilliant, bracing finish.
In some ways, Donbass is stylistically akin to Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, but it comes from the other side of the political spectrum and it has much more to say. Granted, the relay-rondo structure inevitably produces a bit of unevenness, but it is frequently razor-sharp, forceful as heck, and relentlessly honest. This is a major cinematic statement from one of the most important filmmakers working today. Very highly recommended, Donbass screens this Friday (1/11) at MoMI, launching First Look 2019.