In the flood of media coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in recent weeks, one particular type of story keeps cropping up. It’s a story of propaganda, large swaths of a nation fed a story about what’s happening in Ukraine – Putin’s lie about liberating a country overrun by the Nazis – and Russian soldiers finding out, much to their surprise, the situation on the ground is quite different. A story, essentially, fake news, written very, very big.
Nothing in the propaganda is new, and no American should be flippant enough to believe this is a uniquely Russian problem. (“Should”, of course, is not “will”.)
But the chasm between lies and truth, particularly in occupied eastern Ukraine, is hardly new. And Sergei Loznitsa, perhaps the country’s most well-known filmmaker, bit into the subject years ago. Loznitsa usually makes documentaries, but in 2018 his barbed satirical fiction film Donbass toured the festival; he won a director’s prize at Cannes, I saw him this fall in Toronto.
Donbass was selected by Ukraine as an entry for the 2019 Oscars, but the Academy did not nominate it. Then it seemed to disappear, at least in the United States. Now, with the name “Donbass” (sometimes rendered “Donbas”) – the region in eastern Ukraine that has been the seat of pro-Putin and pro-Russian unrest since 2014 – newly recognizable to the American public. , it begins its rollout across the country, first in theaters, followed by a digital release.
Set in the mid-2010s, Donbass is a festival of absurdism. In 13 vignettes, Loznitsa fills the picture of a broken region, collapsing in the mess of conflict and deception that has arisen in the fighting between pro-Russian separatists, backed by Putin’s government, and forces Ukrainian governments.
Presenting a lie as the truth so forcefully, relentlessly, that people simply believe it is the key to understanding Loznitsa’s portrayal of the region. The film begins with actors in a make-up trailer, preparing to march towards a bombing and reacting on camera for a pro-Russian newscast. In the scenes that follow, journalists and activists argue over who is telling the correct version of events. A crime boss explains to the nursing staff at a maternity ward at length how awful it is that their supplies are being stolen, then walks them home and closes the deal to rip them off. The soldiers pretend to be ordinary people to talk to foreign journalists. Civilians huddle in underground bunkers, pretending to be forced into these circumstances, while their finely appointed luxury apartments lie empty and unscathed above ground. And at the end of the film, the actors from the first scene were called in for a much different topical scene.
Loznitsa, who has lived in Germany for decades, is not a man who minces his words, as evidenced by his energetic open letter to and resignation from the European Film Academy after their milquetoast response to the war. But he’s not a cut and dry performer either; shortly after excoriating the EFA, he was retired from the Ukrainian Film Academy after criticize the decision of this group to boycott Russian cinema and filmmakers. His film doesn’t fall neatly one way or the other; while he is clearly siding with Ukraine (the subtitles continually identify the region as “occupied eastern Ukraine”), even the separatist forces get their due audience.
In Donbass, he doesn’t bother to explain the context — if you don’t know what’s going on in Ukraine, that’s your problem, not his. It’s brutal to watch now and know that the reason people like me know more about what’s going on in the movie is because it got so much worse.
But Donbass isn’t just a bunch of bitter footage about how bad, duped, or cynical everyone is. What’s strongest about Loznitsa’s film are the subtle ways in which it connects the scenes, in a way that’s easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. The elliptical story structure isn’t quite linear, which sometimes means an event from a previous scene pops up later. Or you might catch a glimpse on a television of something you just saw happening.
The effect is to connect institutions, to remind us that nothing happens in a vacuum, and that the repercussions are felt not just by those in power but by ordinary people caught up in it. (In this way, the film has a lot in common with a series like Thread.) People’s wartime ideologies and activities blend into the ordinary parts of their lives – eating, visiting family, just trying to catch the bus. The most heartbreaking scene of Donbass comes when a group of separatist soldiers capture a Ukrainian soldier and tie him to a pole near a bus stop, where a group of angry pro-separatist civilians – grandmothers, young men, ordinary people passing by – gather to call him a fascist and a Nazi, punch him, scream in his face and nearly kill him until his captors take him away. The whole thing is captured on someone’s cell phone, and in the next scene, a wedding, they watch.
Ideologies, Loznitsa wishes to remind us, are not really things we choose. For the most part, they choose us, and are reinforced by the people around us, the chatter we hear on the street, the videos we watch on our boyfriend’s phone. Everyone is woven into all sorts of institutions – families and workplaces, governments and social circles – that make us who we are. Getting out is not a simple task; it is like blowing your reality to pieces. It may not even be possible.
Movies (and TV) can tend to boil down morally, ethically, and culturally complex conflicts into easily digestible categories of good guys and bad guys. But a great storyteller usually manages to recognize how few humans really fit into either. Sometimes good storytelling can show us why simple solutions are never available, why the world keeps creating seemingly unsolvable mess. In the way that Thread unpacked something vital about the layered mess of American cities, Donbass plunges with the darkest of smiles into a long-running conflict. The question is not what the solution is; it’s about whether we’ll ever stop thinking it’s easy.
Donbass is playing in limited theaters and will soon be available on digital platforms.