Donbass, the recent feature from documentarian and filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa (A Gentle Creature), is a deep dive into a bleak culture where the concepts of good and bad, right and wrong are nothing more than semantics to be pushed and pulled until they best serve your own interests. The film has the potential to frustrate, sicken and tickle you in equal measure.
There’s a lot to take on board in the ensuing two-hour madness. A politician has a jug of faeces poured over his head, a glamourous socialite struts through a bomb shelter filled with displaced citizens, a company of elderly actors are revealed to be the face of a propaganda machine and an undefined politician/gangster sells out a fraudulent doctor to his hospital on behalf of the same doctor.
Set within the titular region of Donbass, Ukraine, Loznitsa offers up of postcards of the civil war that broke out there in 2014 between the official army and Russian-backed rebels. There are over a dozen characters, and not one that we particularly focus on. The audience is simply marched from one vignette with only one character – played by a mixture of professional and amateur actors – as the connective tissue between the before and after. At times, Donbass feels like a sketch show designed solely to erode away the very idea of goodwill in us all.
This is war, the directorsays, a maddening, soul-destroying exercise wherein corruption courses through the veins of society. Loznitsa’s unflinching gaze captures everything in depressing detail, with perhaps the worst saved for a man falsely accused – or perhaps not – of being an ‘Ukrainian exterminator’. Tied to a lamp post, he’s spat on and yelled at. When the elderly catch wind of him, they coax the younger members of the crowd into beating him up for them. In summary: Donbass is a tough watch.
And yet, despite all its horrors – or maybe because of them – Donbass can often fail to engage its audience. ‘An eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind’ goes the adage and with so much apathy on screen, whether humorous or not, it’s perhaps not surprising that Donbass has the potential to influence the audience. So many faces hurtle past the screen, it can be hard at times to emphasise with what’s being shown to us. We know we should feel bad at the plight of some people, that it is terrible to see a group of comic characters riddled with bullets, but Loznitsa doesn’t allow you time to process what’s happened. Nor does he allow you time to get to know the people he introduces.
This is likely to be deliberate on the part of the director. The shellshock we see in Donbass is no different to what we see on the news before flicking over to watch The Block. It could easily be argued that you’re not meant to feel much for anyone you meet in the film. Whatever the reasoning, the result is still a film that coldly keeps you at an arm’s length for its entire runtime. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a person joyfully telling you an off-colour bleak joke, but then turning their back on you as soon as you laugh.
With all that said, if that ticks all your boxes then you’re in for a treat. If it’s made you want to run for the hills, then you should still do yourself the favour of checking it out. Films with this kind of provocation aren’t filling up the multiplexes. And whilst a strong appreciation of the history of the Ukraine will likely add a bit more spice to what you’re watching, it does the body good to wade into the unknown occasionally. After all, in a world where terms like ‘mainstream media’ and ‘fake news’ are fired out daily, Donbass might not be that unfamiliar at all.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘Donbass’ kicks off a limited theatrical release in Australia on 18 October.