Before the Russian offensive against Ukraine in 2022, a chuck of Eastern Ukraine had been seized by Russians in 2014 and governed as “New Russia.” Donbass, directed by Sergey Loznitsa, provides slices of life in that region in about 2015. Each of thirteen scenes is self-contained but illustrates the chaos and degradation of life, contrasting Ukrainian nationalists with those in the Donetsk People’s Republic.

In the beginning, actresses are being prepped for a dramatic production; they have many complaints, notably not being paid for their work. When ready, they are hustled to a scene of blown-up vehicles so they can false flag the attack—but not before artillery shooting temporarily halts their trip. Next, a woman dumps feces on the presiding officer of a city council meeting to protest being libeled; an exchange of views follows as a shouting match. Then a scene takes place in a hospital, where workers evidently had complained that they lacked food; recently restocked, a braggadocio official shows them that their pleas have been answered.

Several scenes focus on traffic across the border, which involves bribery and luck if not a bomb or two. One group on a bus has men returning from Ukraine to help their relatives in Donetsk; men are stripped to the waist in the snowy weather to determine who has the muscle to be forced into the Donetsk army. Accompanied by a Ukrainian photographer and translator, a German journalist tries to enter Donetsk only to be hassled for being a Nazi. After he declares that he opposes Nazism, he is allowed to enter with a parting complaint that his grandfather must have been a Nazi. A well-dressed woman tries to rescue her mother, who is hiding in a mold-infested basement along with many others fearful of aerial attacks, but her mother prefers to stay with her friends.

 Some of the final scenes focus on war crimes. A Ukrainian is captured, verbally humiliated, and tortured. Actresses in the first scene are massacred, followed by a forensic unit presumably seeking to document a war crime.

 The overall impression is that the uncertain situation has dehumanized life in Donetsk to a point where rescue is an imperative, though Donetskites seem brainwashed and so tense that they let their frustrations out with prodigious screaming. Residents try to survive in various ways, including a raucous wedding, hypermasculine outbursts, and a very brief reminiscence of the days when the Cossack peoples were allowed some autonomy from imperial governments.

Released in Europe before the United States, the film appears released too late as an urgent plea for international assistance. The Political Film Society, nevertheless, has nominated Donbass for an award as best film exposé, best film on human rights problems, and best film spreading consciousness of the need for peace. 

An epilog is needed to explain that director Sergey Loznitsa attacked the European Film Academy for offering bland support for Ukraine without denouncing Russia, and he resigned from the Academy after the war began in February 2022. Nevertheless, he retains support for Russian filmmakers, who have spoken out against Russian aggression, and he has expressed sympathy with the Russian people who have been forced to fight a horrific cause. His reward has been to be ousted from the Ukrainian Film Academy.  MH

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