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‘Donbass’ review: war in Ukraine, the prequel

  • >>AO Scott, The New York Times
    Published: 2022-04-08 00:55:24 BdST

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A  scene from the movie 'Donbass'. Film Movement via The New York Times

Sergei Loznitsa’s “Donbass,” which opened in American theaters Thursday, is not exactly a new film. It was an Oscar entry in 2019 after making its debut at the Cannes Film Festival the year before, and the events depicted onscreen — fictionalised recreations of things rumored to have really happened — take place a few years before that, in the wake of Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine.

Watching it now, as reports of Russian atrocities in other parts of Ukraine dominate the headlines, is unnerving in a way that’s hard to put into words. The movie’s timeliness is obvious enough, and its prescience carries, at least for this viewer, a jolt of shame. The images of what was happening then provide a prologue to the horrors we are witnessing now — and amount to an unheeded warning.

Could a wider audience for “Donbass” have made a difference before this year? Can it make a difference now? Probably not. Art isn’t a lever that moves history, but a lens that shapes perceptions of it. Certain narrative works, novels as well as films, provide illumination different from what might be found in journalism or history. Loznitsa’s nonfiction features, including the recent found-footage documentary “Babi Yar: Context” and the eyewitness chronicle “Maidan,” are to some extent explanatory, examining the causes and consequences of war and political upheaval.

“Donbass,” at once brutally satirical and grimly compassionate, focuses on the subtleties and grotesqueries of human behaviour. Loznitsa paints sprawling tableaus of cruelty, corruption, vulgarity and lies through a series of intimate vignettes.

In an early scene, a government meeting is interrupted by an angry woman, flanked by cameras, who dumps a small tub of excrement on an official’s head. The raucous, profane free-for-all that ensues turns out to be a model of civil discourse compared to what comes later, but it also sounds what will be the film’s dominant notes.

This is a place — identified as “Occupied Territory” in the flashes of text that introduce each scene and called “Novorossiya,” or New Russia, by some of the characters — where violence and absurdity commingle, where chaos is wrapped in bureaucratic punctilio and ceremonial pomp. (Loznitsa and his crew, including the brilliant Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu, shot the film in and around the central Ukrainian city of Krivoi Rog). There is a sly anarchy in Loznitsa’s methods: He wanders, with deceptive casualness, from episode to episode, leaving one story in the middle to follow a stray character into the next.

Starting and ending in a television hair-and-makeup trailer, he takes us to a maternity hospital, a Ukrainian border checkpoint, various militia outposts, a crowded bomb shelter, a bus stop and a wedding. We meet a lot of people, often without catching their names, and observe interactions that range from ridiculous to infuriating to unspeakable. The mood is unstable. Amusement gives way to unease; disgust melts into dread, anxiety into despair. This is a tour of hell, and a reminder that hell is other people. The discomfort comes from the sense that we know these monsters. We are these monsters.

“Donbass” isn’t easy to watch: A scene in which soldiers lead a prisoner into the street to be humiliated, harassed and then beaten by passersby is particularly excruciating. But the movie bristles with caustic humor and moral rigor. The separatist fighters and pro-Russian citizens who dominate the action are held up for censure and ridicule, yet are also given a fair hearing when they paint their adversaries as fascists.

Do they really believe it? When reality is distorted by authoritarian propaganda, cynicism can be impossible to distinguish from sincerity, and opportunism can masquerade as righteousness. That sounds abstract, but the movie’s bitter achievement is in its granular, ground-level concreteness. It’s horrific, impossible, extreme — and also understated.

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