Loznitsa’s “Donbass” Riles Up Ukrainian Audiences
11 November, 2018

Editor’s Note: Hromadske typically spells Donbas with a single “s” as the Ukrainian language rules dictate, but “Donbass” is the English spelling Sergei Loznitsa chose for his film.

“Donbass,” the latest feature film by Ukrainian auteur Sergei Loznitsa, is a meticulously constructed vision of life in Ukraine’s occupied territories since Russia initiated separatist revolt there in 2014. The “black comedy” won a prize at Cannes this year and has been selected as Ukraine’s entry for the Oscars.

Based on publicly available amateur videos by people from the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and eyewitness accounts, the film’s 13 vignettes depict life in a place where deep-seated cultural decay rises to the surface once rule of law is gone. Loznitsa invites viewers to witness (and even laugh at) one uneasy scene after another, from the expropriation of private property in the name of defending the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) to the calculated creation of “news” from this hard-to-access territory.  

Photo credit: screenshot from "Donbass"

Since its release in Ukrainian theaters in late October, the film has left local audiences uncomfortable with its grotesque portrayal of the inhabitants of occupied Donbas. The ensemble drama features power-hungry bandits, duplicitous officials, and miserable, quietly suffering people. The only supporters of Ukraine it shows are a battered volunteer soldier captured by the so-called DPR militia and a couple befuddled officers at a Ukrainian checkpoint.

After watching the film, Hromadske surveyed social media and the press to see how Ukrainian viewers, especially those forced by the conflict to leave their homes, are responding.

“I’d say that the scenes are very realistic, the actors played their expressions and emotions down to the smallest details,” one viewer originally from Donetsk, Olesya Tsybulko, commented. “But you have to understand and acknowledge that [the filmmaker] selected the very worst and most repulsive episodes and ways of life in the occupied territories.”

After a screening in Kyiv, viewer Olha Besperstova, whose hometown Torez is in the occupied Donetsk region, asked the director whether Ukraine needs the Donbas portrayed in the film. Avoiding a direct answer, Loznitsa commented on the general “process of dehumanization happening in society,” she wrote on Facebook.

Photo credit: screenshot from "Donbass"

Loznitsa explained that Donbas here is merely a backdrop for these grotesque figures, who one could meet anywhere in Ukraine or other post-Soviet territories, recalls viewer and political scientist Serhiy Kudelia. “His film is merely a mirror in which the rest of Ukraine’s residents should recognize their friends, colleagues, neighbors and even themselves among the monsters.”

Ongoing Soviet Legacy

In some sense, the film is not about people at all. Rather, as Loznitsa has remarked in interviews, it examines the phenomenon of the war in the Donbas, which he says could have happened anywhere on post-Soviet territory.

Photo credit: screenshot from "Donbass"

The director, who was born in Belarus, grew up in Ukraine, and studied filmmaking in Russia, often addresses the history and legacy of the USSR in his films. How the distinct but similar peoples of the Soviet Union came to murder tens of millions of their own compatriots over the course of the 20th century remains a deeply troubling enigma, Loznitsa told Olexiy Tarasov for Hromadske after the Ukrainian release of “Donbass.”

“I think this war [in eastern Ukraine] is a continuation of… this self-torture and self-annihilation,” he says. “I don’t understand where the desire to keep this up comes from, what is its source.”

Photo credit: screenshot from "Donbass"

Loznitsa’s latest film is an urgent call to think about the events in the Donbas and their relationship to the undying legacy of the USSR. “Donbass” reveals both the quality of life left by decades of Soviet government, as well as the mechanisms people have assimilated for relating to one another.

Sources of Dehumanization

The film depicts events in the first year following the takeover of eastern Ukrainian cities by Russia-backed separatists. We are given a tour of a basement bomb shelter, where a middle-aged woman sits beneath a damp, moldy wall, listlessly peeling carrots in the dim light. A boy points out the sights: “this is a table, this is a lamp, this is a person.”

Photo credit: screenshot from "Donbass"

A glamorously dressed woman storms into the shelter, throwing down a bag of groceries beside her elderly mother. The daughter begins to plead with her mother to leave, and when the latter refuses, the younger woman begins berating her with increasing intensity. The scene ends with the well-dressed blonde swearing and banging on the door her mother has hidden behind.

“Can people become beasts in such a short time, or do they live like this among us – right now, everywhere, today?” wrote Yuriy Hudymenko on Facebook after watching the film.

“The secondary characters from the occupied territories are copies of those in the non-occupied territories. Aggressive grannies. Bullying ladies in SUVs. Quiet, silent good-for-nothings. There are many of these in Kyiv, and in Lviv, and in Zaporizhia,” he observes. “Who are they to us?”

Is it Loznitsa’s artistic angle that has dehumanized the people in “Donbass”? Or have they been dehumanized by their living conditions, by decades under the Soviet system and its ongoing legacy, or by the sudden vacuum of power left by the collapse of Ukrainian government control over the territories? Perhaps dehumanization happens in the eyes of the viewer.

Photo credit: screenshot from "Donbass"

And many viewers fear that people unfamiliar with Ukraine or its Donetsk and Luhansk regions will equate its residents with the odious characters portrayed in “Donbass.”

“Trust me, this film will only heighten those feelings of scorn and hatred – not for the Soviet era, not for the ‘Russian world,’ not for ‘Novorossiya,’ but for us, the residents of the Donbas,” wrote Besperstova.

Could it happen elsewhere?

“Donbass” plays with the staged quality of “real life” performed for the camera that permeates today’s hyper-mediated, post-truth society. The heightened sense of doubt the film awakens in the viewer makes the scenes within it even more difficult to believe, especially if one has little firsthand knowledge of life and recent events in Ukraine. It acts like a mirror that reflects what one already knows or one’s convictions.

The Embassy of Russia in Australia even accused Loznitsa of “Russophobic propaganda” in a fiery condemnation. Yet “Donbass” neither condemns nor glorifies the actions of its characters. Rather it invites audience members to study their own responses to what they see.

Photo credit: screenshot from "Donbass"

In one of the film’s pivotal scenes a Ukrainian volunteer soldier is tied to a post in the center of town for a public shaming. (This actually happened in Zuhres, a town in the Donetsk region in October 2014.) He is first taunted by teenage DPR patriots, who take countless selfies with him. But then a middle-aged woman beseeches him, “Who put you up to this?” His admission to being a volunteer for Ukraine unleashes fury and physical assault from everyone around – the woman, a granny with a cane, men and those teenagers – that escalates, feeding on itself. To the angry crowd he becomes the embodiment of responsibility for everything they have suffered since the start of the conflict, regardless of whether it was actually caused by the Ukrainian army or not.

After the screening, Loznitsa asked the audience: Could it happen only in Donetsk? What about Lviv? He contends that it could not happen in Kryvyi Rih, the central Ukrainian industrial city in government-controlled territory where “Donbass” was filmed, because they’ve seen what has happened in nearby Donetsk.

In his interview with Hromadske, the filmmaker shared an anecdote. When they were rehearsing that scene, a man driving by in his car abruptly turned around, and jumped out to defend the soldier with his bare hands. There were around 70 people there, including guys with automatic rifles, said Loznitsa.

Photo credit: screenshot from "Donbass"

“When we told him this was a film shoot, he spit on the ground and said, ‘Why the hell are you filming this?’ And I agree with him. But I’ll spit in reply and ask, ‘Why the hell is this happening here?’”

“Donbass” is currently playing in theaters in Kyiv, including Zhovten Cinema and Oskar Cinema, in the original language with English subtitles. It will be shown in Los Angeles, USA in late November and early December as part of the Academy Awards campaign.

The film has also been showing in international film festivals since May, and will be screened at the Munich Filmfest and Jerusalem Film Festival in summer 2019.

/By Larissa Babij