Donbass is a region in Eastern Ukraine that’s occupied by various criminal gangs, the Ukrainian regular army, supported by volunteers, and separatist gangs, supported by Russian troops. In “Donbass,” the film, the events that are richly-depicted by Ukraine-born Sergei Loznitsa (“Maidan,” “Austerlitz,” “My joy”) in stunningly-realistic fashion bring the point across, with great clarity, that this war didn’t just happen in the open fields. It happened in the homes, the bunkers, the government offices, the food drives of this community. In fighting this proxy war through the separatist gangs, Russia’s objective was very clear: to prevent Ukraine from becoming a separatist state. Therein lies a deeply-problematic cultural problem, because Ukrainians want to remain within Europe, whereas Russia seems to be pulling back towards the USSR.
About midway through the film, which is a slow succession of vignettes, thirteen in all, of everyday life in wartime, I wondered, does this film have any kind of a rallying structure? Then I thought, it’s the camera! Loznitsa’s camera is the narrator, it is the string tying all of this together. I’ve rarely felt as certain about this, that here the camera is a character and it sets out to narrate the events of 2014 Donbass. As it were, Loznitsa offers a very rich perspective on these stories, by proposing different viewpoints. Sometimes the camera is shoulder-borne, which gives choppy images, such as when people are running during some kind of a fake performance piece at the very beginning, we are running with them (it made me a little sick), or when soldiers have captured an opponent and tied him to a lamp post. The camera doesn’t move a lot, but we’re made privy to death by mob justice about to be delivered before the prisoner is carted off.
The reality of the conflict that took place in the Donbass region in 2014 and 2015, as is revealed in “Donbass,” is both predictable and edifying. We discover the underground version of the conflict, dozens upon dozens of men, women and children piled up in dank below-the-ground dwellings who wait, anxiously watching their food storage grow small while the thunder of mortar can be heard raging above. Their resigned expressions, the solidarity that settles among them.
With “Donbass” Sergei Loznitsa has given us a starkly-realistic portrayal of a region, and its communities, taken for hostage between multiple warring factions. This film will go as one of my favorites this year at Cannes.