Review by Seirce Mhac conghail
“Well, come in, see how we live.”
We are invited by a nameless man speaking straight into the camera, as Sergei Loznitsa’s pseudo-documentary brings us directly into the world of ordinary people caught in Ukrainian war. This fourth-wall breaking is but one of myriad moments where this film reaches out to poke the audience, in a dark playfulness that is laughing both at and with the viewers. From the beginning Donbass is an engaging piece of meta fiction, possessed by the idea of how a story is fabricated, and from that fabrication, how fragile and malleable all reality is.
The setting is an expertly selected foundation to explore this theme: modern-day Ukraine, in the throws of corruption and propaganda, battle and deceit. The military is a chaotic and often brutal force in the lives of civilians, politicians gaslight maternity hospitals, journalists are slandered and derided as fascists. Loznitsa takes full advantage of the locale to hold a mirror up to our currently dizzying era of post truth. Essential to this is the internet, and of course, the smartphone.
I have never seen so many smartphones in a film, whether in fiction or a true documentary. In almost every scene a phone is unmistakably present; pinging to interrupt a conversation, piled on a table of confiscated goods, used to film a mob humiliate and attack a supposed enemy volunteer. Most chillingly, this same video is later shown braggadociously between friends at a wedding. The omnipresence of the phone is something filmmakers tend to shy away from, but is handled by Loznitsa with a great sense of confidence and purpose.
Stylistically, the film is unusual. It is without a narrator, protagonist, or many recurring characters. It is a portmanteau (as is the title itself), told episodically, with most vignettes able to exist independently of one another, jolting from one scene to the next with little obvious connection. Yet still it manages to maintain a certain flow. This is due to cinematographer Oleg Mutu’s deft camera direction, wherein the audience is made feel like a member of the ensemble: somewhat invisible, yet ultimately still answerable.
There is an absence of pleasant detail in Donbass. It is littered with grime and filth, with bitter snows. The sound is entirely diegetic, and consists of harsh voices, industrial clangs, gunshots, engines. We are immersed in a world askew, discomfort and exhaustion prevailing. While this is effective in constructing a vivid experience, it also renders the middle of the film a pile of forgettable sludge. The beginning and end sustain very well, but after some time the repetitive nature of the scenes can lose the viewer, especially as there is no sense of an arc.
Towards the end of the film, the bleak brutality being depicted greatly intensifies, and the hyperrealism veers occasionally into farce, as shown particularly in a horridly bawdy wedding scene. This succeeds in bringing back the viewer’s engagement, and therefore imparting a sense of meaning that would otherwise have been lost. The final scene mimics the first, only with a jolt of tragedy, finally giving the film a sense of satisfying structure. As the scene consists of the filming of a fake news story, the suggestion that reality teeters on the range of human imagination is all the more potently evoked.
All in all, Donbass is an intriguing commentary on the dark power of a story, and people’s universal susceptibility to corruption. While the disjointed style may not be everyone’s cup of petrol, it is certainly a refreshing watch.
Donbass is now showing this week at the Irish Film Institute.