Donbass

Ukraine (2018) Dir. Sergei Loznitsa

Humour, as I have observed before, can be subjective, and doesn’t always travel well between countries and cultures. Satire is one of the harder divisions of humour to cross borders, demonstrated by this offering from Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa which is so short on laughs it’s more a vicious polemic than anything.

Noted documentary maker Loznitsa follows his sublime feature debut A Gentle Creature with a film listed as a satire about the Russian-Ukraine dispute in the titular region of Donbass, where supporters of the pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic clash with loyal nationals. Not an easy subject to make jokes out of, but satire is about twisting the facts to make a point, which I half-believe Loznitsa achieves here.

I say half-believe as my knowledge of this situation is non-existent, likely to also be the major stumbling block for many viewing this film. As a mordant attack on the corruption of power incurred by war, this hits the mark from the onset, showing a small cast of actors being made-up, not for a film but for a faked TV news report to galvanise national support.

Definitely one of the more cynical openings to a film which also forms its conclusion too, though with an even more abrasive twist. Between these related bookends is a series of mini skits detailing life in Donbass and the various levels of military manipulation and cod-patriotism perpetuated by those who shout the loudest and gain the most.

Sadly, a lot of it falls into arcane territory for ignorant folk like me, thus scenes like a bus being stopped and all the men ordered off by soldiers and recruited on the spot to fight for the cause, its randomness presumably the pivot of the joke. An angry woman dumps a bucket of excrement over a councilman who accused her of taking a bribe follows the fake news segment but feels obscure from appearing so early in the film when so much of its manifesto has yet to be established.

Because so much of it went over my head, I feel ill equipped to discuss any of it and I am mindful that reminding you of this fact will become tiresome. Instead, I’ll focus on the bits I did understand and appreciate to avoid this being a repetitive and shallow review. First, a businessman assures staff at a maternity clinic all is well having replenished all of the stock, only to be revealed as having been paid off by their boss, then in the next scene his attempts to bribe a border guard backfire.

The first of two truly incisive and damning vignettes features a man collecting his stolen car from the military but runs into trouble getting it back. The sergeant tells the man to sign his car over to the army as his contribution to the cause which the man refuses because he needs his car. The sergeant gets ratty, suggesting by refusing the man is supporting the enemy and not his country, then tightens the thumbscrews by demanding hefty payment too.

From something that started off almost Python-esque – which could also describe the ending, a’la the captive milkman sketch from series one – Loznitsa finally lays bare the foundation of his intent in the clearest way possible whilst delivering a searing blow in the process. Whatever life was like before this military regime, the current alternative hardly seems any better if people have to be bullied into supporting their country, akin to taking a colourful painting and removing all hues until only black and white is left.

No laughs can possibly be found in a shameful and disturbing situation in which a man is tied to a lamppost under the pretence of supposedly being a Ukrainian executioner and left to suffer at the hands of baying mob of angry locals. It is terrifying the way it escalates from a few unruly yobs to a swarm of people, young and old, having their say, and meting out violence to cheers and bloodthirsty encouragement, all in the name of patriotism.

I have to be honest, not knowing which side is supposed to be the “good guys” makes the whole film confusing but what isn’t ambiguous is the way these people are so easily manipulated by the lies they’ve been told in aggravating their suffering. Emotions will naturally run high but not one person stood up for this man, though they would have been branded a fascist traitor if they had, subtly underlining the communist ethos with a pen fashioned out of barbed wire.

Other instances of the purported satire work on a superficial level for idiots like me, such as the labyrinthine underground bomb shelter where numerous families of all ages reside in squalor, many to a single room, this depressing tableaux of poverty broken by the arrival of a woman dressed to the nines bringing rich, expensive food for her mother, who refuses to come home, presumably due to a difference in political views.

Some sentiments are presented as quite reductive – to wit: a German journalist there to cover the war is called a fascist the very moment his nationality is revealed, which he fervently denies. One soldier concludes the man may not be a fascist but his grandfather definitely was, the worst kind of lateral thinking imaginable but then again, there is little about any of these people that is reasonable.

The presentation is stunning, the camera of Oleg Mutu remaining omnipotent yet never intrusive in capturing this warts and all essay of a corrosive and splintered society. The cast never fault in their roles, many working in long single takes to give this a natural feel that would no doubt take Loznitsa back to his documentary days.

I can’t say I liked or disliked Donbass for being unable to understand everything being said in it though I appreciate it artistically and as an astringent and acutely observed anti-war paean, that draws more blood than any bullet can.