In an age where post-truth politics and fake news are becoming normalised, Ukrainian documentary and film director Sergei Loznitsa brings us his pseudo-documentary drama, Donbass.
Donbass is a region in eastern Ukraine, which up until 2014 had been a densely populated, significant coal mining region. Following the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, the area became a war zone between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government supporters. The ongoing conflict has frequently appeared in the news, with the reports often being tinged with propaganda from both sides.
The film opens in a makeup trailer where actors are getting ready before being escorted to a housing complex yard, a series of controlled explosions occur. It is revealed to us that the actors are not playing in a film, but in a fake news forecast. They have been hired to portray neighbours devastated by this act of ‘terrorism’ supposedly perpetrated by the ‘fascist pro-government supporters’. From there, the film continues as a series of short vignettes depicting different aspects of life in Donbass. We are shown scenes of corrupt officials, soldiers, destitute citizens who have lost their homes, an act of savage mob mentality and even a lurid military wedding. The drama and brutality are offset by flashes of absurd dark humour throughout the entirety of Donbass and the ensemble cast are fantastic and convincing in their roles.
At first, the mini episodes flow quite smoothly into each other; only a quarter of the way through do you realise that you are watching something with no singular narrative arc. Due to the film’s documentary style, there is a lack of background music, making the explosions and sounds of violence all the more jarring. The cool-toned, dull colours accurately capture the bleakness of winter in a provincial, post-Soviet Eastern European region.
Donbass ends in a cruel but fitting way. It will leave you wondering how closely the lines between the portrayed fiction blur with reality, and whether the film itself is just a cynical commentary or its own piece of propaganda.