Film Review: ‘Donbass’ Is a Challenging Depiction of Civil War

Films about civil wars are a dime a dozen, establishing certain tropes and stylistic approaches that audiences have come to expect. But then there are films like “Donbass“, the latest from director Sergei Loznitsa. Pitched somewhere between playful satire and docudrama realism, this account of Ukraine’s ongoing civil war challenges our ideas of what a war film could or should be.

“Donbass” is depicted through a series of vignettes, each following different characters at varying levels of Ukrainian society. Set in the contentious Donbass region, the everyday lives of the people are fraught with the dangers of armed conflict and resulting devastation to their homes and way of life. Keenly documented by the media, these civilians and public figures are very conscious of the images of their nation being shown to the world and even to themselves. And in a society where public opinion carries as much weight as the actual realities, chaos reigns as the truth becomes almost impossible to define.

While the vignettes which make up “Donbass” seem only tangentially connected, they are all concerned with the notion of truth. Whether it be a staged scene where actors recount the atrocities of war or a disrupted meeting where a man has feces dumped on his head for spreading lies in the media, the film doggedly investigates the manipulation and consequences of the perceived truth. Some scenarios are blatantly “fake news”, while others are more subtle propaganda.

With his deathly serious approach, however, Loznitsa constantly blurs the lines between fact and fiction. Filled with long takes, each vignette shows off his assured direction. There’s never any doubt that Loznitsa’s in control of the images he’s showing. But whether he effectively gets his point across is up for debate.

Indeed, it’s hard to tell whether you should laugh or cry throughout. Even the more ridiculous action plot points bear some underlying trauma that is hard to ignore. The anti-fascist pleas, sudden bombardments, and destitute settings feel too severe and urgent to take lightly. And in a world where modern politics feels increasingly farcical, “Donbass” lacks the necessary wit of a film like “The Death of Stalin”, another recent Eastern European satire. Both share many instances of impassioned shouting, but you’re more likely to remember the dialogue in the latter.

Ultimately, “Donbass” will surely be a divisive experience for audiences due to the sensitive nature of its contemporary issues. Personal tastes will, therefore, dictate how you respond to its bone-dry humor and its disjointed narrative. But like it or not, you won’t see another war film like it this year. Or any year, for that matter.

“Donbass” is the Ukrainian submission for the 2018 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

GRADE: (★★½)

Be sure to check out our Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “Donbass” ranks among the contenders!