We live in a political moment, one apparently dominated by post-truth and fake news. It’s disputable that this is a uniquely new phenomenon, but the language of deceit and the conceptualisation of lies have overwhelmed public debate. What does this mean for war and occupation, for peace and sovereignty?
Sergei Loznitsa’s extraordinary, dazzling nightmare locates the horror of political and media misinformation in Eastern Ukraine, in the “People’s Republic of Ukraine”, in the sprawling menace of corrupt officials, violent gangs and individual vulgarity. Modern conflict is hell, and the actively disorientating blur of fact and fiction only perpetuates the trauma.
The director offers an almost hallucinogenic, episodic experience. Commanders bait and trick Western journalists, rich and poor slum it in ad hoc dilapidated shelters, homes are destroyed with impunity, vehicles explode without warning, an official bribes a local Christian group with a Mercedes, businessmen are smuggled into rooms and comically forced to fund the war effort, and a wedding – one ostensibly filled with joy and congratulations – is fed through a filter of simmering insanity and garish, grotesque pomposity.
An acting troupe bookends the film. Russian Separatist gangs occupying the area use the group for propaganda. The actors claim to see attacks by Ukrainian forces, by their monstrous rulers, before they return to their caravan, ready for make-up. Loznitsa emphasises, almost cynically, the absurd contrast of theatrical frivolities and bleak, arid war zones. Nations have been always formed through terror and violence, but these elements are now deadened, saturated, ripped of clarity. Fiction suffocates us.
One scene stands out. An alleged dissident is tied to a lamppost while a commander encourages the incoming, disparate public. Each takes it in turn to berate the man. Elderly women initiate attacks, while the young men follow up. Others film the abuse. This is the barbaric mob in the hyper-technological age, now distorted, angrier, more cowardly. Among the madness, the depravity, the political machinations, one fear strikes us above all: the wickedness and levity of crowds.
Leading Un Certain Regard, Donbass is a concussive sensory blitz, much different to the pedestrian, ponderous Everybody Knows that opened the main competition. This is an intelligent, thunderous rejoinder to modern deception, brutal in its satire, unflinching in its politics. Some may find it overbearingly nihilistic, but the bold sequencing and shocking compositions enthral and disturb.
Donbass does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.
Watch a clip from Donbass here: