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exBlicks Special: Donbas(s) on Film

4 films – 4 original takes on the embattled region

Sergei Loznitsa:

Donbass – Донбасс

Fiction Film

Monday, 25 September, 8:30 pm

followed by Q&A with producer Heino Deckert

Germany/Ukraine/France/Netherlands/Romania 2018, 121 min, written & directed by Sergei Loznitsa, with Boris Kamorzin, Valeriu Andriuta, Tamara Yatsenko, Liudmila Smorodina, Olesya Zhurakovskaya, et al.

The famous Ukrainian filmmaker turns to black absurdist comedy to comment the violence that erupted in the Donbas(s) in the mid-2010s.
In 13 vignettes, Loznitsa depicts a region gone haywire, as human decency falls apart in the chaos of conflict, corruption and outright idiocy that prevades in the zone occupied by the pro-Russian separatists, backed by Putin’s government. It’s a reality beyond tragedy, beyond farce, and to cite Varlam Shalamov “a reflection in the concave mirror of the underground world. The plot is unimaginable and yet real; it really exists and is right next to us.”

The film was selected as the opening film in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and awarded with the Prize for Best Director.
Donbass was originally released in Germany in 2018, but last year’s Russian invasion brought it back to the Kinos for a short spell, and prompted its first proper US release in April 2022.

Sergei Loznitsa
Sergei Loznitsa

Born in Soviet Belarus, Sergei Loznitsa grew up in Kyiv, studied in Russia and now lives in Berlin. Following a short career in applied mathematics and cybernetics, Loznitsa studied film at the Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow. The prolific filmmaker made a few feature films, among which In the Fog (2012) and A Gentle Creature (2017).
But it’s for his documentaries that he’s best known – over 20 total. Daring and thought-provoking, they deal with the Soviet past, his country’s politics (Maidan), or war, like his two most recent: the footage-based Natural History of Destruction inspired by W.G. Sebald’s book and about the use of civilian killing as a weapon of war, and Babi Yar. Context about the forgotten massacre of 33,771 Jews on the outskirts of Kyiv by a Nazi Sonderkommando and auxiliary Ukrainian forces in September 1941.

Exclusive Interview with Sergei Loznitsa

“If I had to make this film again it wouldn’t be a farce anymore.
Masks have come off – it’s pure tragedy.”

Ahead of our screening of Sergei Loznitsa’s award-winning Donbass on Sept 25, Nadja Vancauwenberghe talked to the famous Ukrainian filmmaker, about the power of fiction, the “grotesque” legacy of the Soviet Union, and why war is always the worst solution.

You started working on “Donbass” in 2015, at a time few in the west knew about the violence that had broken out there. Why then?

At the time, in my country, this was the main topic. For us, war had started. And it started in a special way, using the power of propaganda, TV cameras and news to create the kind of ‘alternative’ reality that the Russians had trialled in Crimea already. Suddenly those guys in military fatigues show up out of nowhere, paving the way for full invasion. Who were those “little green men”, what were they coming from? Putin himself later acknowledged they were Russian special units. But, officially, back then, they didn’t exist and ‘no one knew’… So I was interested in exposing a pattern – the method used before in Crimea and that was being used again in Donbas to take over and occupy a territory.

“Donbass” has this raw, immersive quality of a deep-dive doc. Why not just make a documentary as you did with your other film about Ukrainian politics, “Maidan”?

In this case my idea was to make the reality we were showing as convincing as possible. You’ve got to realise that a documentary isn’t a neutral document, a one-to-one depiction of reality anyway. As the authors you make many decisions about light, about the camera angle, the structure, etc. The same goes for news – there’s always some degree of ideological framing linked to many factors and a context – it looks like reality, but it isn’t reality. With “Donbass” I wanted to immerse the audience, to shake people into thinking. And I found that, in this case, fiction worked better.

The film is a collection of 13 rather dark, cynically comic vignettes depicting the reality in the separatist zone. Is it really all taken from real-life material you found on YouTube?

Yes, totally, what you see in my film are mostly scenes from amateur videos I found on youtube, sometimes copy-pasted! For example in the public bullying scene [a captured Ukrainian-army loyalist tied up at a lamppost is abused and beaten up by passersby], the dialog is almost one to one what was on the video I found, I only added a beginning and an ending, to make it more compelling. I actually ran an interesting experiment about this during some masterclasses: I’d show the originals I found on Youtube and what we made out of them, and we’d compare – which worked best? Sometimes, I lost, I missed it wasn’t as strong as the original real-life one. But I must say that most of the time my version won (laughs).

Your political allegiance is clear, you’re an outspoken supporter of Zelensky and of a free independent Ukraine – and yet this film doesn’t feel like a political manifesto. Were you at any point concerned with falling for the kind of propaganda you’re exposing in your film?

What I’m doing isn’t about taking sides or telling people what’s right or wrong. Politics isn’t my field. I make films, art, not journalism or manifestos. As a filmmaker, to have an idea means to have a clear artistic vision. In this case, for me, it was evident that ‘grotesque’ was the artistic form I needed to express my idea of what’s happening in the Donbas.

Why “grotesque”?

Grotesque perfectly depicts the reality of the post-soviet world I come from, with the exception of the Baltic states – there things work differently. People play roles, reality is routinely made up. At some point in my film, you see Russian soldiers from Buryatia – or some other parts of big Russia – and they say they’re locals from Donbas. Of course it’s a lie, and why do they lie? Because officially “Russians aren’t there”. It’s an episode I re-enacted from a real-life story that the fixer you see in the film reported to me. He actually plays his own role: when the frontline soldiers realise he’s with a German journalist from FAZ, they get a random local soldier to play commander. The Russian units always had a random idiot there to enact the “local commander” for the press. A puppet!

Your film does feel like a life-size ‘puppet show’, in which every last civilian readily engages in the new script presented to them. Women, older citizens… they all perform a role in the tragedy – all guilty!

Yes, totally. And the way it works is that you need to come up with a narrative that people will buy – something that will stick once propagated through the power of mass media. Do you remember when they decided to close atomic facilities in Germany? The reason was “Fukushima” and it worked, even though I personally don’t think that an earthquake/tsunami all the way in Japan was a ‘good’ reason for Germany, which isn’t an active seismic place. There was no rational logic really, but it worked. So instrumentalizing fear always works. The same happened at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s a complex issue, but the pattern is pretty simple, simplistic even.

Like instrumentalizing the “fascists are back” fear? It’s a main narrative-thread in Russia’s propaganda, and very popular in the Donbass as you show in your film…

Sure I show people repeating this kind of nonsense. But you know, you can repeat foolish nonsense and Putin’s lies, or you can repeat a more rational, more clever narrative…

This begs the question: why do people buy such “foolish nonsense”?

If we were smart, the war would have never happened. War is the stupidest, most pointless human activity, and yet, we keep engaging in them. Of course you’d need to go into the roots of this war. At least back to the collapse of the Soviet Union and how the so-called democratic transitions of all those post-USSR countries were supported with western money, but not with any political reckoning of the failed and criminal system that destroyed lives and souls during all those years. There was no Nurenberg trial. No attempt at holding people accountable – the same communist party and KGB types remained in power. To this day you still have the Komsomolskaya Pravda right here, in Ukraine! So we ended up with recreating similar patterns and similar power structures. No wonder the capitalism we developed is so corrupt – it’s barbarian capitalism, totally amoral – because it grew out of the same deshumanisation we had during Soviet times.

So this barbary you show in your film, it pre-existed the war? It isn’t a consequence of it…?

That’s a very big and complex issue. In my film I focused on that particular moment in that particular territory, where the layer of humanity is so thin, the culture, and society’s skin. It’s like cancer and there’s no immunity you know, because the collective body’s been neglected for so long.

The film won Cannes’ Un Certain Regard – how was it received by the public, especially here in Germany?

You know, back in 2018 when it was released, the Donbas was a far-removed reality for most people here. Then, there’s no big interest in films coming from this part of Europe in Germany. Take one of Russia’s most famous filmmaker, Andrey Zvyagintsev: His Leviathan made half a million admissions in France, here, in Germany, it was 10,000. We actually re-released the film after the war started – I didn’t hear it do so great either! (laughs)

And what was the feedback in Ukraine? Or in Russia – if ever screened there?

The film was banned in Russia – even that one private screening organised by an oligarch ended up being cancelled and it was a bit of a scandal. After Maidan this is my second film that isn’t shown in Russia – all the others are or were, sometimes (laugh). We showed the film in Kyiv and the reactions were positive – the discussions were more about my safety, you know… The people from Donbas didn’t like my film too much.

Unsurprisingly: you didn’t paint a very flattering portrait of them!

Well, my answer to them was: why should you feel those crazy people have anything in common with you? (laugh)

Mr Loznitsa, you defy category: you never shied away from coming to grips with painful, controversial topics – like most recently Babi Yar. Contexte. You’ve openly bashed Putin and your recent films are banned in Russia, but then you got expelled from the Ukraine Film Academy, officially for standing against a blanket ban on Russian filmmakers…

Regarding the Ukrainian Film academy, you’ve got to realise it isn’t an organisation like you have here or in the US, it’s a private business with no public money and one oligarch behind it. Some people there had a problem with me. One of them was a producer on this film [Donbass]. I had a very good main producer here in Germany, Heino Deckert, who was very supportive, but I had constant arguments with the Ukrainian side. I won but the guy was angry. Then, the head of the Academy at the time was a member of [far-right] Svoboda, and they didn’t like Babi Yar. Contexte. Those people don’t like that I don’t keep silent about Holocaust crimes in Ukraine – it infuriates them. So, they found some bogus reason to do with a small university festival in the French city of Nantes.

What happened in Nantes?

The festival was part of a Russian Studies curriculum and two of my films were programmed along with Russian films by Zvyagintsev, Serebryanikov, Bitokov. Some Ukrainian colleagues demanded that all Russian films be replaced by Ukrainian ones during the war, but the head of the department refused, explaining his students were there to study Russian, not Ukrainian. It was a shitstorm and the festival was cancelled. But for the Academy it was an opportunity to launch a smear campaign against me on Facebook and across media there and abroad, and in no time I was “expelled”. To be honest, I’m ashamed of the behaviour of these Ukrainian colleagues.

Do you think there may be some pressure right now in Ukraine – to silence unwelcome topics in the name of the war effort, at least among certain circles?

I don’t live in Ukraine. Personally, I do what I want and I hope that in Ukraine my colleagues can do the same. Then, I don’t know about TV and public media… It’s hard for me to say.

If you had to make this film today, five years later, would you change anything?

The genre. If I had to make this film again it wouldn’t be a farce anymore. Masks have come off – it’s pure tragedy.

Do you have any hope for a decent outcome for this war?

The one main result of any war is death and destruction for all sides. War is never a way to solve problems. I’m very worried about what happened to my country. Everything is really sad. For me there’s only one best solution: Stop this war.

zur Zeit keine Vorstellungen

exBlicks Special: Donbas(s) on Film

4 films – 4 original takes on the embattled region

a mini festival curated and hosted by Nadja Vancauwen­berghe

25+26 September

Extreme Park

Who cared or even knew much about Donbas(s) until Putin’s invasion of Ukraine brought the Russian-speaking border region to the news agenda?

February 24, 2022, marked the beginning of a war that has caused millions of people to flee their homes, more casualties than meets the media eye (200,000 on both sides) and a global geopolitical realignment along the conflict divide.

But for the people of Donbas(s), war began in 2014 when Kyiv’s military forces sought to crack down on the Russia-backed separatist unrest in the country’s eastern provinces. By February 2022, the fighting had already killed 14,000 and forced millions to flee.

Today, the shell-blasted, mined-filled and trench-marked landscape of Donbas(s) bears witness to the physical ravages of a murderous conflict.

But the region is also an ideological minefield: loyalty-torn, partially Russian-occupied, the Donbas(s) has been at the heart of a propaganda war in which (social) media have been powerful tools in further polarising minds along irreconcilable extremes.

Today there are at least two Donbasses – the region’s very spelling supposed to give away one’s allegiance to one side or the other. It’s Donbas if you mean to show support to Ukraine. But then again Sergei Loznitsa’s film is titled Donbass, although its maker is an outspoken Ukraine/Zelensky supporter.

This mini film festival is not attempting to bring truths or take sides. We humbly rely on the power of cinema and firsthand accounts to shed light on an underreported part of the Ukraine conflict.

The programme is eclectic: four takes on one war by four filmmakers with little in common but their bafflement and horror at how violence broke out and wrecked this part of Ukraine.

Whether small docs or award-winning fiction, their films bear witness to the human tragedy that has been unfolding in Donbas(s) since 2014, years before Putin’s invasion finally brought the region’s plight to Western media’s attention.

As usual, the screenings will be followed by Q&As with filmmakers, while special guests will help bring context and answer questions.

We hope for lively discussions, to be continued in the Kino foyer over (Georgian) wine!

ExBlicks – A monthly Film & Chat Series in English
curated by Nadja Vancauwenberghe in cooperation with Lichtblick-Kino

Watch German and foreign films and meet the people who make them in a real Kiez Kino!
All screenings with English subtitles, followed by Q&As in English with the filmmakers – and a customary glass of wine after the screenings!


Fr 19.07.

keine Vorstellung

Fr 26.07.

keine Vorstellung