Sergei Loznitsa (director)
26 April 2019 (released)
Sergei Loznitsa’s dark comedy-drama, Donbass, opens in a make-up truck on a film set, creating a visual nod to the narrative which plays with our perceptions of truth and reality. Based on real events, the film tracks a series of incidents during the separatist conflict in Eastern Ukraine from 2014. It is also a commentary on contemporary warfare and society at large.
A seasoned and highly-regarded documentary maker, Loznitsa has spent much of his career examining the political landscapes of the Ukraine and Russia, making the subject matter of this, his fourth fiction feature, familiar territory.
Cut into thirteen loosely-connected, episodic scenes, the film makers create a sense of fragmentation throughout, which complements the story thread.
Propaganda, fake news and frontline reporting fight for screen time – and vie to be the voice of what is real and reasonable. Loznitsa is adept at showing the dirty underbelly of war, both in the field and on communities and civilians, as the action lurches unexpectedly, from humiliation, humour to brutality.
In Donbass, truth is a commodity for sale. In one scene, which is wonderfully carried by actor, Boris Kamorzin, it can be bought with basic hospital supplies and kickbacks, by employing Orwellian double-speak and menace.
The casting is terrific and because of the structure, there is an ensemble aesthetic to the overall staging. Under direction, some characters are portrayed with minimalistic realism whilst others are full-throttle, larger than life caricature performances. This decision to mix acting styles produces an undercurrent of uncertainty and edginess, that maintains the dramatic tension extremely well.
Stylistically, the production has a raw and gritty texture and the news-reportage camera techniques and a washed-out colour palette, help to achieve its naturalistic look.
More detail about the conflict could have offered greater insight into the action on screen, and a couple of sequences in particular, felt over long. One of these scenes involves a sustained public berating and attack on a military traitor, whilst impactful and disturbing, the repetition of the degradation felt unnecessarily protracted.
Not to be missed, Donbass is an absorbing and visually arresting film, and Sergei Loznitsa was duly rewarded at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, when he won the Un Certain Regard for Best Director.