Donbass (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Scenes from the ongoing war in Donbass

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“Donbass”, which was selected as the Ukrainian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in last year, gives us a series of vivid, realistic slices of absurdities and horrors of a war which is still being continued even at present. Although it is often hampered by its lack of strong narrative focus, the movie still engages us to considerable degree as gliding from one darkly humorous vignette to another, and we are alternatively amused and chilled even though mostly observing the film from the distance.

The movie opens with a bunch of performers readying themselves for their work in a trailer. On the surface, it looks like they are merely participating in a filmmaking process, but it soon turns out that they are hired for playing traumatized citizens at the site of a fake terror incident, and we later get an indirect glimpse on how the resulting fake news is spread via the local media in the Russian-supported Donetsk’s People’s Republic, which is located in a region named Donbass and has been in a military conflict with Ukraine shortly after the Ukrainian revolution of 2014.

After a brief vignette showing a silly (and literally sh*tty) quarrel unfolded in a provincial hall in Ukraine, the movie goes back to Donetsk, and we are served with an absurd sequence unfolded in some shabby rural hospital. When an official comes into the hospital, it seems he is going to take care of some serious case of corruption, but, not so surprisingly, it is eventually revealed that this smarmy dude is as corrupt as a doctor supposedly responsible for this case, and we subsequently see him taking a bribe from another doctor.

In case of the sequence about a bunch of various civilians going back to Donetsk by a bus, the movie gives us a prime example of that toxic culture of masculinity frequently observed from wars. When the bus is going through another checkpoint guarded the soldiers of Donetsk’s People’s Republic, many of male civilians in the bus are harassed and humiliated by these soldiers, who coldly regard them as traitors to their new motherland. At the same time, a German journalist happens to be dealing with some of these soldiers, and he is not treated that well either just because of his nationality. He is instantly labeled as a fascist, and he is casually insulted by a particularly aggressive solider at one point: “If you aren’t a fascist. then your grandfather was!”

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After the rough vignette showing the German Journalist doing his job on the frontline, the movie moves onto the sequence unfolded inside an underground bunker located somewhere in Donetsk, which is full of desperate civilians struggling with their dire circumstance. Due to the ongoing war, most of them have no other place to stay, and you may wince at times while observing how miserable their living condition in this underground bunker is in many aspects.

At the end of this sequence, a woman comes into the underground bunker for taking away her aging mother, but she only gets frustrated and exasperated as her mother refuses to go with her, and she has no choice but to go back to a government office where she works as a secretary for some high-ranking official. Not long after she returns to her workplace, her boss happens to be visited by a trio of Christian group people eager to promote their religious event with some government support, but he does not care much no matter how much they try to emphasize the importance of their religious event, and we are certainly amused as he eventually sends them away without much promise.

What follows next after this vignette is a gut-wrenching moment showing the brutal punishment on two soldiers who committed a minor transgression, and then we are slapped with the sheer absurdity surrounding one small-time business man who happens to get his valuable asset expropriated by the Donetsk’s People’s Republic Army. He simply wants to get that asset back as soon as possible, but it soon becomes quite clear that there is really nothing he can do about this exasperating situation, and he has no choice but to follow a procedure forced upon him.

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In case of the sequence revolving around a captured Ukrainian soldier, it chills and disgusts us as how people can be quite cruel to others labeled as enemies. When this poor guy is presented as a foreign-backed ‘extermination squad’ on the street while guarded by two soldiers, civilians gather around him one by one, and then they ridicule and humiliate him more and more until he is eventually taken away to somewhere.

This part is later glimpsed briefly via a smartphone during the following vignette, which shows a wedding ceremony being held in the town hall of some rural town in Donetsk. The mood is bright and cheerful as guests gladly congratulate the bride and the groom, but we cannot help but notice some of the guests wearing military outfits, and we are not so surprised when everyone is swept by their nationalism around the end of the wedding ceremony.

I must confess that I was a bit confused from time to time during my viewing, but “Donbass” succeeds as much as intended in my trivial opinion, and director/writer Sergei Loznitsa, who won the Un Certain Regard award for Best Director when the movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival early in last year, did a commendable job on the whole. The movie is not entirely without flaws, but it is still worthwhile to watch, and I think you will appreciate it more if you get some background knowledge on its subject in advance.

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