Beginning with a group of performers being prepped in a makeup trailer before being escorted onto a stage-managed, faux battleground, Sergey Loznitsa’s Donbass suggests a kind of meta-fiction at work. Take as you will that those performers will ultimately be gunned down mercilessly in the film’s closing moments. Donbass ostensibly chronicles the ongoing civil war between Ukrainian nationalists and the Russian-supported Donetsk People’s Republic, although Loznitsa has scrubbed his film of much specific context. If the viewer is confused, as I was, it’s almost certainly by design — like most civil wars, the causes of this conflict are myriad, and the history dense. If one is left with mostly vague notions on this particular geo-political conflict, there is at least a very firm sense of the madness it must be to live through it. Presented as a series of 13, occasionally interlocking vignettes, Loznitsa paints a portrait of a devastated society (how much of it should count as pitch black comedy is up for debate, although other reviewers have mentioned Monty Python and Buñuel as potential signposts). Corrupt, venal politicians abound, literally pouring shit on each other’s heads and fighting over fake news stories planted in opposing newspapers. A hospital becomes a staging ground for propaganda, while various checkpoints become struggles between those with power and those without. Filmed mostly in documentary-style, with handheld long takes, Loznitsa alternates between harrowing realism (a long passage where cameramen tour a refugee camp in a dilapidated building) and sheer madness (a bizarre wedding ceremony; a man strung-up and tortured in a public square). Donbass engenders, alternately, horror, fury, and ultimately, exhaustion — which could very well be the point. Still, it’s a long, occasionally banal slog to get to a foregone conclusion that War Is Bad.
Published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2018 | Dispatch 2.