In the flood of media coverage about the Russian invasion of Ukraine over the past several weeks, a particular kind of story keeps recurring. It’s a tale of propaganda, of large swaths of a nation being fed one story about what’s happening in Ukraine — Putin’s lie of liberating a country overrun with Nazis — and of Russian soldiers discovering, to their surprise, that the situation on the ground is quite different. A story, in essence, of fake news writ very, very large.
Nothing about propaganda is new, and no American should be glib enough to believe that this is a uniquely Russian problem. (“Should,” of course, is not “will.”)
But the gulf between lies and truth, specifically in occupied Eastern Ukraine, is hardly news. And Sergei Loznitsa, perhaps the country’s most well-known filmmaker, sank his teeth into the topic years ago. Loznitsa usually makes documentaries, but in 2018 his barbed satirical fiction film Donbass was making the festival rounds; it won a prize for directing at Cannes, and I saw it that fall in Toronto.
Donbass was selected by Ukraine as its entry for the 2019 Oscars, but the Academy didn’t nominate it. Then it seemed to disappear, at least in the US. Now, with the name “Donbass” (sometimes rendered “Donbas”) — the region in eastern Ukraine that has been the seat of pro-Putin, pro-Russian unrest since 2014 — newly recognizable to American audiences, it’s starting its rollout across the country, first theatrically, to be followed by a digital release.
Set in the mid-2010s, Donbass is a festival of absurdism. In 13 vignettes, Loznitsa fills in an image of a region gone haywire, falling apart in the mess of conflict and deceit that has sprung up in the fighting between pro-Russian separatists, backed by Putin’s government, and Ukrainian government forces.
Portraying a lie as the truth so forcefully, so unrelentingly, that people just believe it is a key to understanding Loznitsa’s portrait of the region. The film starts with actors in a makeup trailer, getting ready to march over to a staged bombing and react on camera for a pro-Russian newscast. In the scenes that follow, journalists and activists fight over who is telling the right version of events. A crime boss explains at length to the nursing staff in a maternity ward how awful it is that their supplies are being stolen, then walks them out the door and finishes the deal to rip them off. Soldiers pretend to be ordinary people to talk to foreign journalists. Civilians huddle in underground bunkers, claiming to be forced into those circumstances, while their finely appointed luxury apartments sit empty and unharmed above ground. And by the end of the film, the actors from the first scene have been drafted into service for a much different news scene.
Loznitsa, who has lived in Germany for decades, is not a man who minces words, as evidenced by his forceful open letter to and resignation from the European Film Academy after their milquetoast response to the war. But he’s not a cut-and-dry sort of artist, either; shortly after he excoriated the EFA, he was removed from the Ukrainian Film Academy after criticizing that group’s decision to boycott Russian film and filmmakers. His film doesn’t come down neatly on one side or the other; while he’s clearly on the side of Ukraine (subtitles continually identify the region as “occupied Eastern Ukraine”), even the separatist forces get their fair hearing.
In Donbass, he doesn’t bother explaining context — if you don’t know what’s going on in Ukraine, that’s your problem, not his. It’s brutal to watch now and know that the whole reason people like me are more familiar with what’s going on in the film is that it has gotten much, much worse.
But Donbass isn’t just a bunch of bitter sequences about how evil or duped or cynical everyone is. What’s strongest about Loznitsa’s film is the subtle ways he links the scenes, in a way that’s easy to miss if you’re not attentive. The elliptical storytelling structure isn’t quite linear, which means sometimes an event from a prior scene shows up later. Or you might catch a glimpse on a TV of something that you just saw happen.
The effect is to link institutions, to remind us that nothing happens in a vacuum, and that the repercussions aren’t just felt by those in power but by ordinary people caught in the gears. (In this way, the film has a lot in common with a show like The Wire.) People’s ideologies and activities in war are blended into the ordinary parts of their lives — eating, visiting family, just trying to ride the bus. The most gut-wrenching scene in Donbass comes when a group of separatist soldiers capture a Ukrainian soldier and tie him to a post near a bus stop, where a group of angry pro-separatist civilians — grandmothers, young men, ordinary people walking by — gather to call him a fascist and a Nazi, punch him, yell in his face, and nearly kill him till his captors take him away. The whole thing is captured on someone’s mobile phone, and in the next scene, a wedding, they watch.
Ideologies, Loznitsa wishes to remind us, aren’t really things we choose. For the most part, they choose us, and are reinforced by the people around us, the chatter we hear on the street, the videos we watch on our buddy’s phone. Everyone is woven into all kinds of institutions — families and workplaces and governments and social circles — that make us who we are. To extract oneself is no simple task; it’s tantamount to blowing your reality to bits. It might not even be possible.
Movies (and TV) can tend to boil down morally, ethically, and culturally complex conflicts into easily digestible categories of the good guys and the bad ones. But a great storyteller usually manages to recognize how few humans really slot into one or the other. At times, great storytelling can show us why simple solutions are never forthcoming, why the world keeps spinning seemingly unsolvable messes. In the way that The Wire unpacked something vital about the layered mess of American cities, Donbass digs with the grimmest of grins into a conflict that has been going on a long time. The question isn’t what the fix is; it’s whether we’ll ever stop thinking it’s an easy one.
Donbass is playing in limited theaters and will soon be available on digital platforms.