To generalise grossly, you might say that the films of the archly combative Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa are about how corruption manifests like a creeping fungus on all tiers of society. His fiction breakthrough, 2010’s ironically titled My Joy, tramped a comically grim trail through the oppressive tactics employed by the Ukrainian state, from bent politicos to power-tripping police officers and way, way beyond.
His latest, Donbass, comes across as the culmination of a broader project of whipping back the fetid curtain on grass-roots injustice, a tactic the director has been refining and expanding on in both fiction and documentary works. Unlike 2017’s A Gentle Creature, about a woman entering into a spiralling abyss of administrative double-dealing in an attempt to see her imprisoned husband, this new film takes an absurdist comic view of a country in moral free fall.
Its exquisite corpse structure pulls in sketches are that are loosely tacked together, with each one depicting a different bald-faced grift being meted out by the powers that be. But not only that, it’s an ode to the huddled, braying masses who, in sheer bafflement, have to accept that the scales are not only weighted against them, but are crushing them from above. One aspect of Donbass that makes it especially interesting is how Loznitsa presents corruption as a theatre of the damned, showing how the aggressors are able to assume the role of someone in power in order to lend heft to their nauseating exploitation tactics.
In the backdrop is the conflict between Russian-backed Donetsk and the Ukraine, and all of the episodes here – some tangentially, others directly – look at the idea of how war is used as a cover-all excuse to abuse the working classes. If you’re not with us, you’re against us, is a constant refrain. One scene sees a man attempting to retrieve his stolen car, only to find that its been commandeered by the military and he’d be siding with fascists if he doesn’t officially sign it over to the army. Another depicts a lengthy dialogue between a fast-talking medical administrator and the nurses at a hospital where supplies are running dangerously short.
What makes Donbass one of the director’s finest fiction features to date is the stark tone it strikes through shooting these dark fragments through with a shot of heady realism. Only one sequence involving a raucous wedding party is a pointed shift into the surreal – all the others depict crazy situations that all feel like they’ve been ripped directly from the headlines or have have been recreated with a measure of true-to-life fidelity.
Some of these scenes are capped with a grim punchline, others just spiral off into a paradoxical abyss. The strength of Donbass is that it is unremittingly bleak, but brings a sense of levity via its dazzling whirlwind of cinematic invention. It’s unlikely that this will be Loznitsa’s final word on this pet subject, but the prospect of seeing how the maestro of miserablism further uncovers this ghastly societal rot is certainly a tantalising one.
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