It’s on secret that many of today’s filmmakers are politically engaged, with their views reflected in their work or even vocally expressed. In the case of director Sergei Loznitsa, both approaches apply. Indeed, this was evident in our recent interview for his new film “Donbass,” which is an unflinching portrait of Ukrainian society in the midst of civil war. Below is an edited version of our far-reaching discussion on the historical and contemporary influences behind his filmmaking.
Shane Slater: This isn’t your first film dealing with issues surrounding war and occupied territories. What draws you to these themes?
Sergei Loznitsa: I think it’s a very important problem which we have to reflect on now. This is a situation which destroyed two countries (Russia and Ukraine). And we have to start to think about why it happened and how it happened. Because in this war, you can find characters of a hybrid war and this is something new we have to deal with. This is why I decided to make this film.
SS: You previously made the documentary “Maidan” about war in Ukraine. Has your perspective changed since then, and how did that affect your approach to this fictional work?
SL: I’ve been making documentaries since 1996. I studied and lived in Russia and continued making documentaries there until 2008. After that I emigrated to Germany and made documentaries from archives. And yes, I also shot this revolution in Maidan. This is what I do between fiction films. I don’t shoot documentaries about particular persons. I don’t have a protagonist in my films. My protagonist is a group of people and what I’m looking for in my documentaries is the relationship between people and their society. Why do we live this way? Why did this revolution happen? What kind of forces move this revolution. I observe the situation from a distance.
These are my interests. For example, the Russian Empire was beginning to fall about 100 years ago. Now, we’re just observing one of the effects of this destruction. It still continues. This war is just one of the consequences of that situation.
SS: The film follows different storylines, with some being more outrageous than others. Yet they all feel grounded in reality. How did you arrive at this final selection of narratives?
SL: All of these stories have a real background. They are real stories and some of them I saw on YouTube when this war just began in 2014. People posted them as witnesses of these situations. It was an insane time. Some of the videos were both funny and tragic. It looks like a grotesque form of reality. And I think that it’s a strange composition when you have the grotesque carnival with tragedy. So I started to describe that and wrote scripts. The scripts are inspired by those 7 YouTube videos. Some of them are “copy and paste” and the rest are based on stories told to me by people.
SS: One of the themes explored in the film is the use of propaganda. Considering how cinema has been used as a propaganda tool in the past, did this give you an extra sense of responsibility in how you portrayed this urgent situation?
SL: Propaganda has a very concrete goal. To make the spectator think like the propagandist would like you to think. I don’t have this goal. My film has an open structure. You can watch it from different angles and come to different conclusions after watching it. I’ve worked for so many years with documentaries and I know how these old tricks work in cinema. So of course, I take responsibility as every artist takes responsibility for what they are doing.
From the other side, it’s a piece of art. You can do what you want. You’re not a politician, you’re an artist. In art, everything is possible. I remember when the Germans came to Pablo Picasso and showed him a postcard with Guernica and said, this is what you did. He said no, this is what you did! [Laughs]. That would be my response too. Sometimes, it looks like the artist who makes a film about war is responsible for that war. I just reflect what I’ve seen.
SS: How was the experience of shooting the film? Did you shoot near the areas directly affected by the war?
SL: It was about 300 km from the frontline. We shot in the city. A big, industrial city that looks like Donetsk. The city’s name is Krivoy Rog and there are a lots of jobs in mining. The people are very close mentally to Donetsk, so it was a good experience to work there. We had about 2000 extras and about 70 nonprofessional actors and 30 professional. I worked with the normal people to keep the authenticity.
SS: The current socio-political climate shows little signs of improvement. Does this motivate you to keep working with these urgent issues or are you feeling some disillusionment?
SL: The next film I’ve been wanting to make for a long time, is not about recent situations but the topic is still relevant. It is about Babi Yar, the big massacre of Jewish persons in Kiev in 1941. My interest in this film is how society came to that situation. How different groups reacted to one of the first types of Holocaust in the Soviet Union. The topic is how the Holocaust began. We know the result, but it is interesting to reflect on how people came to that, step by step. I’m from this city, I grew up in Kiev. I know it very well and it’s still a painful question there. Nobody has done a film about it until now. I would like to make of it what I can.
It is connected to recent situations because I think history makes a circle. We have come back to the 1930s with different tools. The media is everywhere and strongly influences the people. With all the photos and videos from Facebook and Twitter it is even more dangerous. There are more possibilities to influence and dictate to people how they should be and act. People are not protected against that. It’s more or less the same situation as when the Third Reich started and the Germans attacked and occupied different countries. People live in societies and they don’t know what happened. This is the most important question. When you act, you have to know what is happening. We are in a trap where we don’t know what is happening and we act in the wrong way.
I’m a kind of investigator. I want to see societies from a scientist’s point of view and deconstruct the different strategies. All revolutions follow the same dramaturgy. When I shot “Maidan” I just followed the dramaturgy of revolution and described the most important turning points. All revolutions finish with victims, and victimization is very important to society. Victimization creates society. I don’t know why, but we keep repeating the same steps.