Movie Review: Ukrainian satire “Donbass” skewers the Russian-backed “civil war” before the Russian invasion

“Donbass,” writer-director Sergey Loznitsa’s send up of the farcical Russian-backed “separatists” civil war of Eastern Ukraine, is framed by having its first and last scenes in a film production makeup trailer.

“Actors” or “crisis actors,” we wonder as we ponder the theatricality of it all. This is “civil war” as performance, a big, broad lie pushed by Putin, pushed-back-against by the legitimate Ukrainian government, where it’s not so much ground taken and public support implied as how everything “appears.”

You want a Sudetenland/Cyprus excuse to arm, aid and eventually invade to “support” the ethnic Russian minority, part of the “Russification” of the region begun by Stalin? Trot out the word that conjures up ancient hatreds of the sworn enemy of the People — “fascists.” Everybody you think you oppose, everyone you eyeball as you check their “papers” is “Look, we’ve caught a fascist!”

You’re determined to continue the “cleansing” begun in World War II? Prop a captured Ukrainian soldier up against a city lamppost with the label “extermination squad” on a placard around his neck. Because if you’re running extermination squads, you’d best accuse the other side of doing it.

“Projection” we call it over here, with a former projector-in-chief still waddling around calling other people traitors and crooks even though we know he’s talking about himself.

Want to show how “corrupt” the “failed government” was at running a local maternity hospital? Stuff it with food and supplies, bring in a bluff, bragging party boss (Boris Kamorzin) to parade the staff through kitchens and offices of the “doctor who is stealing from you” to show off cases of bottled water and fridge after fridge stuffed with sausages.

“What a great actor you are, Mikhalyich” the doctor (Evgeny Chepurnyak) compliments him after the tour is over and they’re chumming around in (what one guesses) is the accused “thief” doctor’s office.

Loznitsa, a Ukrainian filmmaker mostly-known for documentaries (“Babi Yar. Context”), gives us a skewering “Slacker” style satire in which the “story” is told in a sort of relay race. We follow this character from that hospital into his Mercedes where he goes through that checkpoint, only to follow another character onto a bus that is then stopped at the next checkpoint where the men on board are berated and shamed by a female separatist commander, strip-searched before she’ll let these men — every one with an excuse for not joining her Russian-backed (or native Ukrainian) cause — move on.

A city hall meeting is interrupted by a protester who dumps “dirt” (not “dirt”) all over the mayor and declares, “If the police and the courts have failed, I will defend my honor myself!”

We duck into a city bomb shelter where a furious cultural non-profit executive chews out her mother for taking shelter with hundreds of others — “Nobody’s bombing it!” — only to then visit this or that break-off region’s leader, “People’s Republic of” of whatever, with its own flag — to explain this charity show she and others have conceived to bring the people together in “this awful event,” a nice euphemism for the years-long invasion that preceded the invasion the world is finally focused on now.

The premier carelessly punches his intercom to his secretary, and for the entire charity event committee to hear as they leave and demands to know “What was THAT circus all about?”

People burst into this or that anthem about the proud “Cossack nation” or the virtues of buying into Putin’s “Novorossiya,” a new “Russian Empire” remade before the botoxed runt dies the early death that Russians in general, and Russian leaders in particular, are fated for.

Through it all, hulking, bear-sized soldiers in Russian Ushanka fur hats guard this check point, harass that foreign journalist (Thorsten Merten) and run a simple extortion scheme in which they “expropriate” (steal) expensive cars, summon the owners to “return” them only to shove a piece of paper on that owner demanding that he sign it over to “them,” and then demand huge sums of money to release their new hostage, all based on how much they know this SUV or that person (access to tax records) is worth.

It takes a while to settle into Loznitsa’s storytelling style and get a handle on the points he’s making. Non-natives aren’t going to pick up on every allusion, the nuances of accent or even the differences between the Russian and Ukrainian being spoken (with subtitles).

But as we watch the brutish way media brainwashed and sometimes vodka-tipsy “Make Russian Great Again” types abuse a battered 50something man labeled “extermination squad” by men with guns, the way other soldiers cane AWOL conscripts in gauntlet that almost kills them, the random rocket-artillery barrages that slaughter civilians at a checkpoint and the work-arounds every civilian faces in an artificially-militarized authoritarian mess that Vladimir Putin has wrought, we get the point.

There is no real “us vs them,” only an outsider’s theatrical production of that. And unfortunately all involved are trapped in that teleplay, mere extras to be abused, enslaved, robbed and shot by the uniformed Men With Guns, no matter which colorful flag they claim to represent.

Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Tamara Yatsenko, Boris Kamorzin, Thorsten Merten, Svetlana Kolesova, Sergey Kolesov

Credits: Scripted and directed by Sergey Loznitsa. A Film Movement release.

Running time: 2:02

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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