Sergei Loznitsa and the Return of Donbass

Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass (2018)

From today through the end of the month, Sphinx Cinema in Ghent will screen Donbass, Sergei Loznitsa’s 2018 film about the conflict in eastern Ukraine that turns out to have been a prelude to Russia’s invasion of the entire country. Sphinx will donate all proceeds to the Red Cross. Berlin’s Wolf Kino will present Donbass on March 19 and 20 and donate its proceeds to Save the Children.

On Monday, Loznitsa resigned from the European Film Academy in protest following a statement from the EFA declaring “Solidarity with Ukraine” that he deemed pretty weak tea. In an open letter, he lambasted the EFA, writing that “the Russian army has been devastating Ukrainian cities and villages, killing Ukrainian citizens. Is it really possible that you—humanists, human rights and dignity advocates, champions of freedom and democracy—are afraid to call a war a war, to condemn barbarity and voice your protest?”

The following day, the EFA issued a stronger statement, declaring its unequivocal condemnation of “the war started by Russia” and its support for “the call of the Ukrainian Film Academy to boycott Russian film.” Loznitsa responded immediately with another letter stating that a boycott is not at all what he had in mind. He noted that “many friends and colleagues, Russian filmmakers, have taken a stand against this insane war. When I hear today these calls to ban Russian films, I think of these [filmmakers] who are good people. They are victims as we are of this aggression.”

Born in Belarus, Loznitsa went to high school in Kyiv and worked as a mathematician at the Institute of Cybernetics before entering the renowned Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow in 1991. He spent the next several years making documentaries before his first two fictional features, My Joy (2010) and In the Fog (2012), premiered in competition in Cannes. In 2014, he returned to the festival to present Maidan as a special screening. The documentary focuses on the protests that took place in Kyiv’s Independence Square, which were sparked in November 2013 when Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine at the time, opted for closer ties with Russia rather than with the European Union.

The Euromaidan movement eventually led to the overthrow of Yanukovych and his government, which in turn led to Donetsk and Luhansk, the two easternmost oblasts of Ukraine, to declare their independence—which, of course, Vladimir Putin officially recognized on February 21, three days before launching his invasion. Loznitsa’s Donbass is a series of thirteen vignettes set against the backdrop of the fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Putin-backed Russian separatists in the mid-2010s, which unfolded throughout the entire southeastern region of the country historically known as Donbas.

When Donbass premiered in the Un Certain Regard program in Cannes, where it won the section’s top prize, Loznitsa told Eric Hynes in Film Comment that he was “inspired by the experiments of Eisenstein, and I used the same technique that Buñuel used in The Phantom of Liberty. It’s a collection of episodes, and in every one there is a character that moves us to the next one. And my intention was to have every episode of the film show one side, one manifestation, one aspect of this omnipresent process of disintegration and decay. Almost every episode has a documentary reference, in that there were people who filmed these types of situations—events that happened for real—with their mobile phones and then uploaded them to the Internet. Perhaps this is the most malicious film I’ve done so far. Most evil. Let’s call it an angry film.”

His anger has not subsided. He’s currently working on a new feature documentary, The Natural History of Destruction, which is loosely inspired by W. G. Sebald’s 1999 book about how the Germans had processed—or failed to process—the Allied bombing campaign in the final years of the Second World War. Meanwhile, in the U.S., his IDFA-winning documentary, Mr. Landsbergis—about the Lithuanian fight for independence from the Soviet Union—will screen at True/False this weekend and MoMI’s First Look Festival on March 19.

As for the current war in Ukraine, Loznitsa tells Geoffrey Macnab in the Financial Times that he was “not surprised at all” by Putin’s decision to invade. As he has several times in the past, Loznitsa argues that the root of so many problems throughout the region is that “there was never a Nuremberg trial of communism.” He adds that “the people who have been ruling Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, building this criminal/terrorist regime, were [only] imitating western-style democratic values. That was just a simulation, a fake. All these years, they have been busy building this state which reconstructs everything from the original Soviet system.”

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