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Donbass – Film Review

Donbass – Film Review by Frank L.

Director: Sergey Loznitsa
Writer: Sergey Loznitsa
Stars: Valeriu Andriuta, Nina Antonova, Valeriy Antonyuk

Loznitsa (My Joy 2010, In the Fog 2012 and Maidan 2014) was born in Belaruss in 1964 when it was part of the Soviet Union and now lives in Berlin. In between times he was brought up in Kiev, Ukraine where he obtained his primary degree in mathematics subsequently working in the field of artificial intelligence and working as a translator from Japanese. He changed direction entering into the world of cinematography in 1991 graduating from the Gerasimov Institute, Kiev with honours in 1997.  He is a man of varied experiences. In Donbass, he now brings to the screen a series of thirteen vignettes which show the chaos that dominates the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine since 2014.

As each vignette is not connected with the previous one the world which Loznitsa creates is like that of a small craft being tossed about on a sea greatly agitated by a storm. Everything is unpredictable; survival is the name of the game. Out of this mayhem Loznitsa conjures up scenes that are impossible to forget, such as a man considered to be a traitor by the supporters of the pro-Russian vigilantes that are now in control, is tied to a lamp post by louts. He is then physically and verbally abused by the gathering mob which includes a respectable-looking lady. A similar blood curdling scene is when another unfortunate man is forced literally to run the gauntlet between two rows of men armed with large batons with which they beat him as he staggers forward.

Loznitsa shows not only the blatant physical attacks, he also hones in on the gross abuse of raw power as exemplified by the commandeering of a new commercial van by the vigilantes which is owned by a decent, hard working thirty year old. When the thirty year old complains to the man in charge, the safety of his young daughter is brought into question. Meanwhile, the intensity of the intimidation is increased by the sound of two or more mobile phones which form part of a large collection which lie scattered on the thug’s desk forlornly ring out unanswered. Presumably each of the unseen callers are unaware that the true owner of the phone has had it confiscated by the thug and his comrades. It is a chilling sequence where a decent man is rendered powerless.  At the other side of the spectrum there is a marriage ceremony in a town hall conducted by a female apparatchik with both the bride and groom of the most unlikely appearance. It is a surreal celebration which even though a festive occasion reeks of corruption.

The cinematography of Oleg Mutu adds to the harsh and inhumane world that is paraded. The day to day life of Donbass as portrayed by Loznitsa is a place of unknowns where lawlessness and chaos is in the ascendant.  Perhaps Loznitsa’s film helps to make comprehensible the recent election in the Western part of Ukraine. It is a world not easy to comprehend. It is a grim watch but it is worth the effort in order to have some inkling of what Ukraine and its inhabitants are currently enduring.


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