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The conflict in Ukraine

Regissør: Sergej Loznitsa
(Ukraina, Tyskland, Frankrike, Nederland, Romania)

Loznitsa's film explores the controversy over facts that raged in Donbass, between Ukraine and the Russian-backed People's Republic of Donetsk in the eastern part of Ukraine.


During the display of Donbass – the latest film by Ukrainian documentary director Sergej Loznitsa during the international film festival in Ljubljana this fall – put two elderly people in line in front of me. When the view was over, the person on the right turned to the other and said, "Hey? Were they actors? Wasn't this a documentary? "

No, on the contrary

Loznitsa's new film explores the controversy over Donbass facts, between Ukraine and the Russian-backed People's Republic of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. The thirteen parts of the film are absolutely fictional: armed conflicts, crime and theft committed by separatist gangs are mixed together. War is called peace, propaganda is lifted up as truth, hatred is depicted as love. Loznitsa's journey through the Donbass region consists of a series of wild adventures, where the grotesque and the tragic fuse.

Sergei Loznitsa is a mathematician, expert on artificial intelligence, translator from Japanese and also a prolific director of documentaries and feature films. Working with both documentary and fiction is a rather unconventional combination for a filmmaker, but for Loznitsa this seems to be the only logical alternative, as one of the main themes of his work is the thin line between fiction and facts.

That the media has become an invisible part of life today is an accepted claim.

I Donbass he uses documentary approaches (he films with a handheld camera while the film has a loose narrative structure, without the protagonist), in what is a pure fiction film. This he does to portray the notorious Donbass region as a reality, where it is difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction – not only for the international community, but also for those who live there.

In this way he avoids making simplistic judgments about lies and manipulation and at the same time realizes the need to adopt the "correct" attitude. Instead, he manages to visualize the film's main points: There is no "fake news" or true news. All representations are as written down in a script. However, that does not mean that reality is immaterial.

Irony as political resistance

Film writers have recently reflected on the documentary genre's weaknesses, but Loznitsas Donbass demonstrates its strength. The language and basic methods used in the documentary film format are now also used in many feature films. However, the use of the hybrid format that alternates between documentary and fiction is not entirely new in the film's history. Filmmakers who belonged to the Yugoslav film movement called the "Black Wave" often used documentary clips in their feature films.

One of the most recognized examples in this genre is WR: Mysteries of the Organism (WR – Mystery organism, 1971) by Dusan Makavejev. Like Loznitsa, this movement experimented with the film format as a response to the political contemporary. The public discourse of the former communist states of Eastern Europe was marked by the distance between words and actions among those in power: they said one thing (such as "all power to the people" or to speak for freedom of speech) and did something else ( give all power to the party leaders and maintain strict control over the public vocabulary).

Political opposition was not expressed with a pronounced criticism of the public statements of the authorities, but with an eager rendering of these statements. This was seen as a form of "ironic over-identification": one identified with what one would criticize, in a clearly excessive way.

Lenin on psychedelic mushrooms

attends the photocall for “Donbass” during the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival at the Palais des Festivals on May 9, 2018 in Cannes, France.

Musicians have also used this form of communication. An excellent example is the Slovenian band Laibach, which developed techniques for ironic over-identification from the early 80s: from the male march in their videos to the military uniforms the band members wore. The band's name is also the former German name for the Slovenian capital Ljubljana. All together, this became an expression of the band's totalitarian identity. The band members were even charged with promoting Nazi ideology, but what they actually did was to criticize the communist regime's totalitarian politics by identifying with it in an ironic way.

Another example is the notorious TV broadcast bluff to Soviet musician Sergei Kurjokhin and reporter Sergei Sjolokhov.

In a sometime interview in the program Pyatoe Koleso (the fifth wheel) in 1991, Kurjokhin pretends to be a historian and tells of his discoveries in which Vladimir Lenin ate large amounts of psychedelic mushrooms and eventually developed into a mushroom himself.

Also the older couple's reaction after the show off Donbass in Ljubljana is a form of ironic over-identification. When they say, "This must be a documentary, because it looks so real!" It is actually a criticism of the evil they have seen on screen. The married couple could have understood it as a true representation of reality.

The reaction is a useful example, for it points to the importance of being aware of various forms of communication – that is, the ability to understand the content of something that is not explicitly or openly expressed.

This is also the biggest strength of Loznitsa's film: It invites the audience to reflect on what we know about Donbass, and how we know what we know about Donbass in the first place.

Media as an invisible part of everyday life

My colleagues at MTR have already pointed out that Donbass not only is a sharp political criticism of Russia's meddling in Ukraine, but also a "surreal interpretation of the war as a distorted horror scenario of media manipulation" (See Carmen Gray's review of Their Own Republic).

Here we find the universal relevance and appeal of the film. That our everyday lives have been "medialized", that is, that the media has become an invisible part of our lives, is today an accepted claim. Media has today become an underlying infrastructure in everyday interactions. This shows the significant space the media has in our lives, but it also presents us with a challenge. When the media disappears into our world of life (cf. Husserl's concept Living environment, which denotes the concrete world we live in), how can we still se them, and how can we reflect on such a medialized world in traditional media such as film?

Contrary to the premise of Matrix (1999), with the dilemma represented in the blue and red pill, the medialization of the world of life has no end. It presents, to quote Mark Deuze, the researcher behind the term, "a new ethical and aesthetic challenge regarding our being in the world".

The greatest value in the movie Donbass is that it reminds us of this very challenge.

Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Zajc is a media writer, researcher and film critic. She lives and works in Slovenia, Italy and Africa.

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