His films documented Russia’s last invasion of Ukraine. Now he lives through this one –

A scene from “Donbass” by Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa. Courtesy of Film Movement

by Sergei Loznitsa Donbass, the Ukrainian filmmaker’s film that made the rounds of the festival in the now seemingly ancient 2018 kicks off with two different vignettes. We watch an older woman get rings around her eyes in a make-up trailer – she’s part of a ‘cast’ of ‘regular people’, as well as fake cops and corpses, who will help sell the consequences of a nationalist “attack” in the name of pro-Russian TV propaganda. The year is 2014; the place is, by a subtitle, “Occupied Ukraine”. An assistant leads her and her fellow actors onto the set as a controlled explosion goes off. As soon as the TV cameras started rolling, we went inside a political meeting. A senior minister has just finished singing the country’s national anthem and is about to begin the proceedings when a woman walks in and throws a bucket of thick, brown feces over his head. A heated argument between the participants breaks out. Loznitsa’s message is clear: the separatist catastrophe was staged. The shit is real. Welcome to Putin’s Russia.

Arguably Ukraine’s greatest living filmmaker and unquestionably one of the most cutting and incisive critics of Eastern Europe’s past, present and volatile future, Loznitsa threw grenades like these two sketch – the first of a long series that revolves Donbassfrom abysmal black comedy to crime scene tragedy — since the turn of the 21st century. Unless you regularly scour film festivals, religiously keep tip sheets on world film heavyweights, or have a subscription to MUBI, however, you may not have heard of his work. . (Especially since the Venn diagram between these three categories is essentially an unblemished circle.) This satire won him the Un Certain Regard directing award at Cannes when it premiered four years ago, and n ‘is only now getting a wider release in the United States. The timing is, sadly and sickeningly, perfect.

So, incidentally, is the fact that Bab Yar. The context, his 2021 documentary about a massacre of Ukrainian Jews outside kyiv that took place during World War II has begun screening across the country in recent weeks, just as reports of the graves communes discovered at Bucha began to circulate. Like many of Loznitsa’s documentaries – his non-fiction work accounts for just over three quarters of his filmography – it uses an abundance of archival footage to turn a history lesson into an insistent reminder of forgotten horrors. , a chronicle of his nation’s long-standing struggle for survival and a cautionary tale. The use of The context in its title contains multitudes here. And if you live in or near New York, the IFC Center doesn’t just screen Donbass but also showing many of Loznitsa’s earlier works, including the hard to find Maidan (2014), a vital timeline of the “dignity revolution” that overthrew the current former president in exile in Russia Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych.

These three films fill in the margins and lob Molotovs when it comes to what’s going on right now in his homeland (Loznitsa currently lives in Berlin), and all three illustrate how the filmmaker has used the medium to praise and criticize his homeland. . “I want my country to improve,” the filmmaker reportedly said in Slate. “It is crucial to recognize current problems and reflect on them. If someone doesn’t want to think about it, that’s their problem, not mine. This is one of his less incendiary recent statements regarding Putin’s war against the Ukrainian people. Loznitsa’s open letter to the European Film Academy accuses the organization of “burying[ing] head in the sand… Is it really possible that you, humanists, defenders of human rights and dignity, champions of freedom and democracy, are afraid to call a war a war, to condemn barbarism and to express your protest? He then resigned from the group. And when Loznitsa expressed outrage that the broad boycott of Russian artists was not just a nationalist response to an international war crime, but also “a gift to the Kremlin propagandists of the Ukrainian film academy”, he also was summarily expelled from this academy.

It’s now ironic that, given how the mucky-mucks of the greater global film community have either shunned the filmmaker or received his most caustic comments, curious American moviegoers may finally be the most receptive to what he had to say about the long-standing Russian aggression in the region and how he said it. A colleague of mine lamented last week that while it’s wonderful that Ukraine’s most prominent veteran filmmaker could “have a time”, it would have been nice if he didn’t need a crime. world-recognized war and the devastation of the country that Loznitsa holds near and dear to his heart, in order to inspire him.

Yet irony is a primary color in this filmmaker’s palette. To go back to Donbass, the most important of his films currently circulating (and the most essential to catch): it’s a satire that’s built around a series of separate, but sometimes intersecting sketches that were loosely inspired by cellphone footage and YouTube clips made during the 2014 war in Donbass. A corrupt official tells his employees that the theft of medical supplies has been fixed, before he reveals he was behind the scam. Pro-Russian separatists stop buses full of fleeing citizens and steal their food, enlist them in fights or worse. A wedding turns into a chaotic “patriotic” melee. A traitor is treated like a tourist attraction, mocked and then nearly murdered in a town square.

The effect is like looking at a mural painted from the outside in, slowly revealing a society fueled by power, corruption, lies – and an outside force that harnesses the nation’s inner rot on behalf of the nation. conquest. To see this on a screen in 2018 was enough to amaze you. To see all of this in 2022 is to feel like you’ve stepped on a landmine that someone shouted about just be there, a few steps from where everyone has been walking, for years. Loznitsa once dramatized and documented Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine. He now saw this one, albeit from a distance. The pain always crosses the din. Donbass ends with a callback to its opening, which revisits those “bad actors” who helped block fake news. Before the credits roll to a masterfully staged 12-minute shot, the scene of this prank will become the site of a very real mass atrocity. Watching it unfold in near real time is nightmarish – and a thumbs up that what happens outside the frame, in the real world, is far worse.

Since Rolling Stone US.