‘Donbass’, the latest from Germany-based Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, leaves audiences with a lot to process. Told through a series of a dozen or so vignettes, the film takes an excoriating look at events that divide the nationalists of Ukraine from their Russian neighbors. By literally throwing shit on the proceedings, we’re treated to an often provocative, often messy take by a filmmaker who is pointedly using cinema as an instrument of rage.
Loznitsa pulls the curtain back on media manipulation, introducing from the first moments a group being made-up in a trailer only to be led to a war zone where supposedly impromptu news reports are filmed. It’s a cynical take on the “fake news” phenomenon, laying bare what he showcases as the weaponization of #FakeNews by those in the area. This is the film’s most biting and salient point, and repeatedly we see the way that the stories of war are being shaped by forces either subtle or overt.
This makes for a film like few others, one far more interested in epistemological quandaries than visceral bouts of action. Each segment has some sort of lie attached to it, crafting what feels to be a Kafka-esque nightmare of bureaucratic, institutionalized deceit. The entire region of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine feels diabolical, a venue for manipulation and morbid conflict that at each level strips out humanity by embroiling citizen and soldier alike in this descent into a truthless vacuum.
The end result is a tough, challenging film that too often leans towards the polemical. Loznitsa’s ideas sometimes come across as simplistic or smug, no doubt shaped by the challenge of screaming about these actual obscenities and trying to awaken a complacent citizenry. The diatribes don’t often work, and rather than feeling like an antidote to this kind of manipulation, the film occasionally leans towards the propagandistic.
Still, there’s much to admire here. ‘Donbass’ is a film of deep intellectual heft that demonstrates the explosive nature of lies during wartime. It’s heady stuff, and not every segment connects, but as an overall project it’s a fascinating, haunting cry from an artist trying desperately to cut through the onslaught of bullshit and illuminate the factors of fake news in order to encourage us all to see through the madness of manipulation.