Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa treats war as a grotesque, unmappable, sometimes droll, often grim carnival in this very personal take on his country’s ongoing civil war. ‘Donbass’ is a drama that has the energy and style of a yet-to-be-completed documentary, grabbed in the heat of the moment. Its name refers to the contested region of eastern Ukraine and south-eastern Russia, and that’s where we land, just as civil war is erupting in 2014 and 2015. Loznitsa leads us through a series of loosely-linked vignettes that begin and end with Ukraine’s neighbour Russia orchestrating fake news and criminal violence. From there we see scenes illustrating corruption, poverty and local traditions that take on a new significance in a time of conflict, when identities, old and new, become a matter of survival.
There are some tough scenes, most of all when we witness a ‘fascist’ hired killer being tied to a lamppost and mocked – and then attacked – by a vigilante mob, a mix of young men and older women: it’s hard not to remember the grabbed footage of Colonel Gaddafi meeting a grisly end in Libya in 2011. It’s a deadly serious film, streaked with immediacy and relevance. But it also has a layer of dark humour and surrealism to it. For anyone not familiar with the ins and outs of this complicated conflict, it’s impossible to know exactly what Loznitsa is driving at in every scene. But the strange, warped spirit of war cuts through every moment.