His Films Documented Russia’s Last Ukraine Invasion. Now He’s Living Through This One

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donbass-film-still - Credit: Courtesy of Film Movement
donbass-film-still - Credit: Courtesy of Film Movement

Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, the Ukrainian filmmaker’s movie that made the festival rounds in the now-seemingly ancient year of 2018, kicks off with two different vignettes. We watch an older woman getting rings put around her eyes in a makeup trailer — she’s part of a “cast” of “everyday people,” along with fake cops and corpses, that will help sell the aftermath of a nationalist “attack” in the name of pro-Russia TV propaganda. The year is 2014; the place is, per an intertitle, “Occupied Ukraine.” An assistant leads her and her fellow actors to the set as a controlled explosion is detonated. No sooner have the TV cameras started rolling then we cut to the inside of political meeting. A high-ranking minister has just concluded the singing of the country’s national anthem and is about to start the proceedings when a woman walks in and dumps a bucket of thick, brown fecal matter onto his head. A heated argument among participants breaks out. Loznitsa’s message is clear: The separatist catastrophe has been staged. The shit is real. Welcome to Putin’s Russia.

Arguably Ukraine’s greatest living filmmaker and inarguably one of the most cutting, incisive critics of Eastern Europe’s past, present and unstable future, Loznitsa has been lobbing grenades like those two sketches — the first of many that turns Donbass‘s abyss-black comedy into a crime-scene tragedy — since the beginning of the 21st century. Unless you regularly trawl film festivals, religiously keep tip sheets on world-cinema heavy hitters or are a MUBI subscriber, however, you may not have heard of his work. (Especially since the Venn diagram between those three categories is essentially an unblemished circle.) This satire won him the Un Certain Regard directing prize at Cannes when it premiered there four years ago, and is only now getting a wider U.S. release. The timing is, regrettably and sickeningly, perfect.

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So, for that matter, is the fact that Babi Yar. Context, his 2021 documentary about a massacre of Ukrainian Jews outside of Kyiv that took place during WWII, began screening around the country over the last few weeks, right as news of mass graves found in Bucha began to circulate. Like many of Loznitsa’s documentaries — his nonfiction work makes up a little over three-quarters of his filmography — it uses an abundance of archival footage in order to turn a history lesson into an insistent reminder of forgotten horrors, a chronicle of his nation’s longstanding struggle for survival and a cautionary tale. The use of Context in his title contains multitudes here. And should you live in or near New York City, the IFC Center is not only screening Donbass but also showing several of Loznitsa’s earlier works, notably the hard-to-find Maidan (2014), a vital timeline of the “Revolution of Dignity” that ousted former President/current exile in Russia Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych.

All three of these movies fill in the margins and lob Molotovs in regards to what’s happening right now in his native country (Loznitsa currently lives in Berlin), and all three exemplify how the filmmaker has used the medium to both praise and criticize his homeland. “I want my country to get better,” the filmmaker was quoted as saying in Slate. “It’s crucial to acknowledge the current problems and to think about them. If somebody doesn’t want to think about it, it’s their problem, not mine.” That’s one of his less incendiary recent statements regarding Putin’s war on the Ukrainian people. Loznitsa’s open letter to the European Film Academy accused the organization of “bury[ing] its head in the sand…. Is it really possible that you — humanists, human rights and dignity advocates, champions of freedom and democracy — are afraid to call a war a war, to condemn barbarity and voice your protest?” He then resigned from the group. And when Loznitsa expressed outrage that the broad boycotting of Russian artists was not only a nationalist response to an international war crime but also “a gift to Kremlin propagandists from the Ukrainian film academy,” he was summarily expelled from that academy as well.

It’s now ironic that, given the way that the mucky-mucks of the greater world-film community have either shunned the filmmaker or been on the receiving end of his more caustic comments, curious American moviegoers may finally be the most receptive to what he’s had to say about longstanding Russian aggression in the region and how he’s said it. A colleague of mine lamented last week that while it’s wonderful that the most prominent veteran filmmaker from Ukraine may be “having a moment,” it would have been nice if it didn’t need a globally recognized war crime, and the devastation of the country that Loznitsa holds near and dear to his heart, in order to inspire it.

Irony is, however, a primary color in this filmmaker’s palette. To circle back to Donbass, the most prominent of his films currently circulating right now (and the most essential to catch): It’s a satire that’s constructed around a series of separate, yet occasionally intersecting sketches that were loosely inspired around cellphone footage and YouTube clips made during the War in Donbass in 2014. A corrupt officials tells his employees that the theft of medical supplies has been corrected, before it’s revealing that he was masterminding the scam. Pro-Russian separatists stop buses filled with fleeing citizens and either steal their food, conscript them into fighting or worse. A wedding turns into a chaotic “patriotic” free-for-all. A traitor is treated like a tourist attraction, mocked and then nearly murdered in a town square.

The effect is like watching a mural being painted from the outside in, slowly revealing a society fueled by power, corruption, lies — and an outside force that’s exploiting the nation’s interior rot in the name of conquest. To see this on a screen in 2018 was enough to floor you. To see all of this in 2022 is to feel like you’ve stepped on a landmine that someone had been screaming about being right there, a few steps away from where everybody was trodding, for years. Loznitsa once dramatized and documented Russia’s last invasion of Ukraine. He’s now living through this one, albeit from a distance. The pain still cuts though the din. Donbass ends with a callback to its opening, which revisits those “bad actors” who helped stump fake news. Before the credits roll over a masterfully staged, 12-minute-long shot, the scene of that hoax will become the site to a very real mass atrocity. Watching it unfold in near-real time is nightmarish — and a nudge that what’s happening outside of the frame, in the real world, is far, far worse.

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