Guest post by Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed.
This year the Ukrainian Homelands Series explores memory as one of the central elements for facilitating transcultural and transnational conversation regarding what we know about our own selves and others, what we remember, and what we forget. Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass (2018) opens this year’s series: this film emphasizes the topic of war, trauma, and memory from the perspective of the present moment. Donbass is directed by the renowned director Sergei Loznitsa, who was invited to IU in the summer of 2018. For this film, which was co-produced by Germany, Ukraine, France, the Netherlands, and Romania, Loznitsa received the 2018 Un Certain Regard Award for Best Director at Cannes. Donbass was also selected by Ukraine for the 2019 Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film. With Donbass, we initiate a conversation about how the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine develops and what contributes to the escalation of political and diplomatic tension between Russia and Ukraine. As the film shows, the conflict originates not only in political ambitions and different visions of the past and the future that the two countries may seem to engage in — the conflict is nourished by manipulative techniques that shape memory and consciousness.
Donbass consists of a series of narrative fragments revealing the nature of the current war between Russia and Ukraine. The film departs from a conventional depiction of war: a chronological and historical order is substituted with a grotesque and phantasmagorical scene disclosing the absurdity of destruction. At first glance, the fragments do not seem to be logically connected. Some episodes depict a bomb shelter and the life of its dwellers; others focus on the everyday life of military groups supported and sponsored by Russia that fight against the Ukrainian Army; unexpectedly, the film moves towards the wedding scenes which shock with absurdity; eventually, viewers are presented with a horrific massacre scene in the very end.
In spite of a seeming lack of connecting elements that would help arrange the film fragments into one puzzle, Donbass does include a detail which, in fact, turns into a powerful uniting component: the beginning and the end of the film are located in the same setting—a make-up wagon—which brings some sense of déjà vu as the actors that participate in the two episodes repeat their lines with slight modifications. These fragments also have the same topic: the two episodes depict actors who play the roles of war witnesses and victims, and the war scenes are staged. All the actors are killed by those who formerly hired them for staged war scenes. Ironically, other “actors” replace the killed ones and they report about what happened in the make-up wagon. The film leaves some sense of a circle: a collection of fragments is located in some limited and restricted space which is somehow shaped by those who happen to participate in the military conflict. There appears a desire to get out of this closed space, but an attempt to leave this territory seems to fail.
Donbass does not restore the chronology of the war that has now continued for more than five years. But I do not think it was the main ambition of the film crew. The film attempts to accomplish something different—to disclose how the conflict develops on a memory and consciousness level. The film includes a wide range of cultural and historical references, including Ukrainian, Russian, and Soviet histories and cultures. This combination of various narratives lays the foundation for manipulating how the military conflict is presented and understood. The most horrifying effect of this manipulation is the loss of humanism. Any war is a loss of humanism and the Donbass war is no exception. The situation is aggravated by a desire to construct and protect one’s own truth.
One of the most eloquent elements of the film is a conspicuous presence of filming devices, ranging from professional cameras to private smart phones. Filming empowers by providing a privilege of sharing news; on the other hand, it also gives a privilege to report the news from a certain perspective, and each perspective creates its own space and truth. Donbass explores the space where a number of political and ideological narratives collide. One eventually wins, but at what cost? Loss of humanity? Loss of dignity? Loss of self? The film includes a few episodes that depict public punishment, “execution,” which turns into a norm. It should be noted here that many film episodes are based on real facts and on videos which were taken by amateurs and uploaded to YouTube — film reality and life reality are not far apart. The question is: how does one construct their own reality while being submerged into these multiple spaces? Who or what wins? And what is the trophy?
In this masterfully constructed film, Loznitsa delves into the psychology of war. A phantasmagorical Donbass, however, does not provide answers: the film asks various questions which are often very uncomfortable as one is asked to recognize the inhumane and the cruel, the heartless and the vile. The reality which is constructed in the process of fighting for influence and power can be described as distorted, but this description does not seem to reflect what the film reveals. Distortion presupposes the opposite: something that is not distorted, something that can be an antidote to a distortion. To recognize a distortion, one has to maintain some sanity. In this regard, Loznitsa’s film portrays distortion as the only option: there is no antidote, not in the film at least. The Donbass can be described as a borderline space where humanism is defeated and there is little hope for a rapid restoration. Portraying how “fake news” constructs alternative truths and realities, Donbass, which at first glance does not provide any hope for the conflict solution, invites viewers to focus on what is absent: humanism, kindness, compassion, mercy, and the ability to ask questions and to communicate with each other.
Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed is a PhD student in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures. Her interests include memory studies, literature, and literary criticism.