There is no job more thankless than the prophet of doom, nor one more necessary. Prescient commentators rant about the degradation of civil society, yet in an age when every conflict can be accessed or flicked away with the swipe of a finger on a smartphone, such cries of injustice generally constitute just another shout in the wind. The compunction to tell the truth remains, which is why Sergei Loznitsa’s body of work is so indispensable: It refuses to be complacent. The Ukrainian director’s “Donbass” is a natural follow-up to “A Gentle Creature”: Though the two have little in common stylistically, they’re both screams against a society that’s lost its humanity and can’t be bothered to care.
Seamlessly divided into 13 segments, “Donbass” recounts the corrosive nature of the conflict pitting Ukrainian nationalists against supporters of Russia’s proxy Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine. No one comes out clean, but how could they, when years of manipulation have malignantly stirred animosities on both sides? Notwithstanding the film’s unmistakable thematic cohesion, its piecemeal structure means that viewers will feel battered with each successive scene, knowing full well that the storyline to come will lead to yet another episode of increased brutality. For this reason, “Donbass” will struggle to find audiences beyond Loznitsa fans.
The time period is 2014-’15, though it’s unlikely much has changed in a region lacking basic infrastructure and shredded by acrimony. The opening establishes Loznitsa’s argument, as a group of people in a makeup trailer is refreshed and then marched to a section of town where controlled explosives have just blown up several vehicles. It’s not a movie set but fake news to be broadcast as real reportage (the segment is glimpsed later on in the background). At this moment of post-truth, hardly limited to Donbass, reality is a useless commodity whose only value lies in how it can be reproduced and packaged.
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The next two episodes continue the theme of fact manipulation, as a woman (Olesya Zhurakovskaya) accused in a newspaper of taking a bribe dumps a pail of feces onto a town councilman. From there it’s an easy leap to a maternity hospital storeroom, where Boris Mikhailovitch (Boris Kamorzin) shows staff members they’re fully stocked with food and medicines, although clearly the supplies have just been placed there. Boris isn’t immune to ill-treatment when he tries to get through a roadside checkpoint, just like a busload of passengers whose inner dialogues about the homes they’re returning to in the conflict zone offer a glimpse at the constant uncertainty plaguing the battered population.
As they pass into the Donetsk region, German journalist Michael Walter (uncredited) and his translator are taunted by soldiers, several of whom clearly are non-local Russians pretending to be from the area. It’s possible he’s connected with the cameraman who enters a building lacking plumbing or heating, where scores of people are living in primitive conditions. The arrival of a blonde (Irina Plesnyaeva) in a tight sparkly dress, spiked heels and fur coat makes a sharp contrast as she tries to coax her elderly mother to join her. Leaving in frustration, she heads back to the office, where her boss (Vadim Dubovsky) listens with little interest to a woman (Zhanna Lubgane) wanting luxury arrangements for the holy relics she’s proposing be toured around the region.
The remaining segments become ever more brutal: Simeon (Alexander Zamurayev) goes to army headquarters when he’s told his missing car has been found, only to be forced into handing the vehicle over “for the cause.” Most disturbing is a scene in which a captured man (Valery Antoniuk) labeled as a Ukrainian exterminator is tied to a street pole and verbally and physically attacked by a growing mob. A nightmarish wedding follows, with the film returning to that makeup trailer for a coldly horrific finale.
Corruption and humiliation are the guiding forces of “Donbass,” resulting in a scathing portrait of a society where human interaction has descended to a level of barbarity more in keeping with late antiquity than the so-called contemporary civilized world. As with “A Gentle Creature,” the connecting ties between people have been worn away, ravaged by selfishness or sheer exhaustion. Dissimulation is a weapon that pairs perfectly with bombs and machine guns: One murders individuals, the other kills the social order, and together they rule over a scorched land of foul-mouthed beings whose souls have shriveled away. There’s a danger that Loznitsa’s cries of inhumanity will be dismissed as repetitive, yet isn’t that always the case with prophets?
In each scene, Oleg Mutu’s supple camera acts as a silent, inquisitive historian recording every new offense, for capturing it all visually is the only means of ensuring that some truth survives. Taking the pseudo-documentarian approach he’s demonstrated in a number of now classic Romanian films, the master cinematographer inserts himself and wanders in and among the actors, fixing them in space and guaranteeing that reality — the reality of the film — is honored.