The Ukrainian Oscar Committee has chosen Serhii Loznytsia’s drama Donbas as the national contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.
The film, which deals with the events in the east of Ukraine and was created by Ukraine’s most-decorated contemporary filmmaker, bested five other contenders in the national selection: Volodymyr Tykhyi’s Brama, Roman Bondarchuk’s Volcano, Marysia Nikitiuk’s When the Trees Fall, Akhtem Seitablaiev’s Cyborgs and the documentary Myth, made by Leonid Kanter and Ivan Yasnyi.
Donbas won a prize before, in Cannes this May, where it received the Best Director Award in the Un Certain Regard program. On August 21, it became known that the movie entered the long list of the European Film Academy Awards. The North American premiere of the drama will be held at the Toronto Festival in the Contemporary World Cinema section.
The film is a co-production involving Ukraine, Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Romania. The Ukrainian producers were Denys Ivanov and the Arthouse Traffic film company. The principal photography took place in Kryvyi Rih this winter.
Of the thirteen episodes making up the film, only one unfolds outside the occupied territories. The scenery for the rest is the bloody everyday reality of “Novorossia” in a notional eastern Ukrainian city. And yet, the film is not just a story about the structure of the “Russian world,” but also one about its main weapon – propaganda, the mechanisms of which Loznytsia analyzes with his characteristic poignancy.
It starts with the very first frame. In the trailer carrying a film crew, a portly and talkative lady (Tamara Yatsenko) argues with the make-up artist. In the next scene, she and her fellow actors, disguised as regular passers-by and taken to the street, will have to act as “eyewitnesses” of a fictitious enemy shelling, filmed against the backdrop of a trolleybus and a car which had been blown up beforehand. In this mad “Novorossian” world, reality gets remade to suit slogans. Time and space lose integrity in this distorted coordinate system, individual lives are just consumables, a leader or a boss gets substituted for a hero, so no story can end, and thus Donbas is structured fragmentarily. With each new episode, manipulations become both more brazen and more skillful. In a maternity hospital, the talkative Mykhalych (Boris Kamorzin) stages a show for a quiet audience of white-coated female extras, during which he demonstrates foodstuffs and medicines hidden in the office of the hospital’s thievish manager, while the latter quietly sits it all out in the next room and then rewards the showman with a cash-filled envelope of the required thickness. A group of Mongoloid-looking soldiers tell a German journalist that they are “locals,” but cannot specify how their home village is called. A Ukrainian prisoner of war is taken to a post near a bus stop with a sign on his chest reading “exterminator,” as his captors intend him to be lynched. A minibus gets blown to pieces by Russian Grad missiles, after which the separatist vehicle accompanying it is shot up on the road at night in an ambush set by the liquidation team. The film crew from the prologue is turned into actual dead bodies for the sake of making another news report as closing credits roll against a static long-shot picture: a lie biting its own tail.
Donbas’s script is based on video clips from the Internet. Posting news footage on the Internet is an information activity rather than a filmmaking one. Accordingly, Oleh Mutu, who worked with Loznytsia in all of the latter’s feature films, subordinates his cinematographer individuality to the film’s dramaturgy. He reincarnates himself into a jumping camera in a bomb shelter, a phone in the hands of a careless female driver on a shelled road, and a stationary observer in long shots. Such self-abdication does not rule out the ethically clear position of the author, it is simply the only way for him to witness that which evades witnessing, to make a factory of irreality real.
It is neither a document nor a drama, but rather a broad anatomical section, and there can probably be no other optics for a hell furnished by propaganda.
Nobody has offered such a perspective before.
Donbas will see general release in Ukraine on October 18.