Film Review: Donbass

Writer/director Sergey Loznitsa’s wild, all-over-the-place depiction of the ongoing war in Donbass, eastern Ukraine, is a hard movie to get a handle on and doesn’t really communicate anything except the madness of the whole situation in that region – but it does so pretty spectacularly.

Not bothering to offer much exposition or explanation, this one plays as a sometimes fevered and typically unreliable series of near-sketches of daily life in Donbass, with the tone veering from ferocious anger, to absurdist humour, to inexplicable chaos, and the viewer is left to make sense of it all. Or not.

The opening sequence (complete with jiggling hand-held camera) blurs the line between fact and fiction: are we watching a staged sequence for TV, or a filmed chronicle of real events gone violently wrong? And does it really matter?

Then we’re thrown into chapters where a bucket of crap is dumped on a councilman’s head, an egomaniacal separatist discusses scavenged supplies for a maternity ward and a motley group of men are forced to strip in the snow and mocked (by a scary female officer) for not joining up to fight. Who are these people? What’s going on? Where do we start?

Loznitsa repeats moments from varying perspectives, making you doubt everything you’re seeing, and goes a little too far with a would-be-funny wedding where the cast all mug and leer like Monty Python-esque loons, and yet there are still highlights here that prove shocking and haunting. A soldier’s cries of never surrendering and battling to the end are abruptly cut short by a deadly attack; another is viciously beaten for trying to desert; and still more brag about the number of corpses they’ll gladly show a freaked-out German journalist, before the gang are told to shut up and stop lying. But are they?

At times as crazed and dangerous as the war itself, this shows a ‘post-propaganda’ Donbass where technology is everywhere (especially mobile phones) and yet nothing can properly depict what the Hell is happening. And if the ‘truth’ could be somehow caught and put on the internet for all the world to see would anyone truly understand or believe it? Or care?

Rated M

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