Welcome to the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. It’s under the control of the separatists, and the lot of the inhabitants is not a happy one. If you haven’t been bombed out of your home, you’ve probably been injured in a bus attack, or blackmailed by the police, or subjected to state propaganda day after day after day. It’s a toss-up whether being ignored by the authorities is worse than being noticed by them. Sergei Loznitsa’s film is a series of scenes set throughout the region, showing different sides of the absurdity and the despair of Donbass as we shift from situation to situation.
Donbass has been described as a black comedy, but it’s rarely a comedy designed to make you laugh. Instead, it continuously points out the lunacy of life in eastern Ukraine, and lunacy simply isn’t very funny when there are real victims. A scene in which a businessman is blackmailed by the police climaxes with a room full of people on their mobile phones trying to arrange their own blackmail payments. As a state functionary ‘proves’ the corruption of a hospital doctor, it is ‘discovered’ that the doctor has even been stealing packs of incontinence pads. At one point, a government official refers to a group of petitioners as a ‘flying circus’, unavoidably conjuring up thoughts of Monty Python. It put me in mind of Barbet Schroeder’s General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait, which showed how absurd Amin was and how comical his regime would be – if it weren’t real.
We see plenty of victims in Donbass, from the blackmailed businessman to those whose homes have been destroyed and who are now living in a makeshift camp. The film doesn’t have an overall storyline; instead, it moves from one group of characters to another, typically with little to connect them. Only once do we set the same characters twice, when we return at the end of the film to the actors’ dressing trailer we saw at the beginning. This spread of scenes allows us to see how contaminated society is, as we get to see a fair spread of the different classes that have emerged from the chaos. Probably the best example of this is of an expensively-dressed woman who comes to a camp for the new homeless. She has come to give food to her elderly mother, and she tries to get her mother to come with her. The woman has government accommodation, and they’re perfectly safe there, she insists, but her mother has too much pride – or contempt for the authorities – to move. When the woman leaves the hovel, she gets into a shiny chauffeur-driven car to get back to her job. She doesn’t understand why her mother is so persistent, and presumably, she never will.
Unfortunately, the constant switching between scenes, no matter how well it makes sense in theory, ends up hurting the film. The scenes are self-contained, and can almost always be watched in isolation from the other scenes. Watching them out of order wouldn’t change very much. So the viewer might end up wondering why we should get invested in these people if we’ll never see them again once the scene has changed. Early on in the film, a woman dumps a bucket of excrement on a newspaper editor for the media’s defamation of her. Why have the media attacked her? How did she get in this position? What punishment will she receive for her protests? We never find out, as Loznitsa tells us little about what happened before and nothing about what will happen afterward.
There is also a lack of cohesion in the film’s portrayal of society in Donbass. In one scene, a car is blown up before its ambushers shoot the passengers to make sure. In another scene, an absurd wedding ceremony is taking place. What’s the connection between the two, other than that they take place in the same country? On the face of it, not much. If the film had an overall storyline, or we saw characters from different scenes interact with each other, there would be a greater sense of a single massively authoritarian regime that was behind everything, reshaping society according to its own perverse logic. As it is, the police, the military, the media, and the government agencies typically seem like separate entities, when in authoritarian regimes they are all parts of the same all-pervasive creature.
The film thus ends up going mainly from set-piece to set-piece to set-piece, and as individual set-pieces, they mostly work. One of the strongest is at the beginning of the film, which brings together atrocity, fake news, and media complicity in a savage and imaginative way. Ultimately, though, the film ends up being less than the sum of its parts precisely because the parts aren’t connected sufficiently well. We have little way to root ourselves in the film, and so we feel less affected by it.