DONBASS. Cast includes Valeriu Andriuta, Natalya Buzko, Evgeny Chistyakov, Georgly Deliev, and Valery Antoniuk. Directed by Sergei Loznitsa. Rated M (Mature themes, violence and coarse language). 122 min.

This subtitled film from Ukraine explores the conflict between Ukraine and the Russian-supported Donetsk People’s Republic. Armed conflict broke out between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian, Putin-backed separatists in the eastern region of Donbass.

The film opened the Un Certain Regard section of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and won the Festival’s award for Best Director in that section. Formally, the film is structured around 13  different segments, illustrating a society that is dysfunctional. It pits Ukrainian nationalists against supporters of Russia’s proxy Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine, and the history of incessant conflict between the opposing forces in the region shows anger, frustration, bitterness and resentment on both sides.

The episodes reflected in the segments emphasise the cruelty of war. The time period for the movie is 2014-2015, and the war in Donbass broke out in 2014. It is a time  when fake news replaced real news, facts were manipulated, and massive uncertainty gripped the population.

Events threading through the 13 sections are different and various. A journalist pours a bucket of excrement over the head of a corrupt mayor she sees as responsible for a libellous story in a local newspaper; authorities steal humanitarian aid from patients and staff at a maternity clinic; and passers-by abuse and beat up a Ukrainian volunteer tied to a lamppost. This last, disturbing scene shows a captured man (Valery Antoniuk) who is thought to kill Ukrainians being tied to a pole and being attacked viciously by hostile citizens passing by in the street. A wedding with an hysterical bride and groom, who are congratulated by uniformed, armed soldiers, provides a surreal follow-up to the scenario. In the movie, community spirit is speedily displaced by selfishness, and bombs and machine guns go hand in hand with corruption and deceit.

The camera roams in and out among the various actors, providing a record of some events that might be real; it records scenes on high, or afar, waiting for something to happen, and the effect of that is dramatic. The film appears at first to be a random collection of episodes, but as the different segments of the film come onto the screen, the movie steadily accrues an emotional impact which turns the events being shown into an absurdist horror show. And when that occurs, the boundary lines between horror, fantasy, reality and farce become compellingly indistinct. 

The film communicates deep despair at the senselessness of war. No single person appears in all the segments, which are unconstrained by the coherence of a single, narrative thread. The viewer doesn’t really get to know any of the characters. Killing and insensitivity abound, and the futility of war is ever-present.

This is harrowing, compelling and vivid film-making about the effects of war on people who have lost dignity and humanity. Everyone depicted in the movie is a potential casualty of war. Bomb blasts wipe out people as the film moves to the next scene, and the viewer doesn’t know at times whether people are headed towards or away from further attack or humiliation. This is a black comedy where confusion and violence reign. Dark humour characterises the expression of human sentiment; segments genuinely shock; and angry messages find their target.

The film is idiosyncratic and is directed by a masterful director, but it is not for the faint-hearted. Those who appreciate the precision of formal cinema under original direction will want to see it, but they and others will be in for a harrowing time. This is a deeply cynical film that dramatises the utter futility and inhumanity of war. It highlights the frustration and distress of the present by communicating the tragedy of the past. It is a movie where war brutalises people on both sides of armed conflict, and “what is absurd” and “what is horrifying” morph unpredictably into each other.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

The Backlot Films Pty. Ltd.

Released October 18th., 2018

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