By Haley Forgacs
Sergei Loznitsa’s film, Donbass, provides a glimpse into the harsh reality of war in eastern Ukraine during the late 2010s and those experiencing the conflict first hand. Through a series of loosely related episodes, Loznitsa weaves satire through sobering depictions of life in this chaotic, war-torn landscape to paint a bleak and unnerving picture of the conflict. From the bureaucratic chaos of Donbass town halls, to the extortion of local citizens by authorities to soldiers on the front lines, Loznitsa dissects the Russian campaign in eastern Ukraine in a way that emphasizes both the absurdity and brutality of pro-Russian war efforts. Throughout the film, Loznitsa addresses corruption, propaganda, and the sinister nature of Russian disinformation in Donbass. While doing so, Loznitsa effectively blurs the lines between fiction and reality by using various techniques such as shaky camera and abnormally long shots to create a documentary-style film that is fictitious in content, but very much real in subtext. The reality of war in Donbass is thus evident not necessarily in Loznitsa’s satirized characters, but rather in the setting, mood, and context surrounding each scene. Loznitsa blends fiction and reality to address key themes throughout the film regarding pro-Russian corruption and civilian estrangement from humanity as a result of the conflict. The ambiguity between fiction and reality is achieved using satire and documentary-style cinematography, which ultimately allows Loznitsa to unveil truth in war-torn Donbass and explore inhumanity bred from conflict.
Donbass portrays the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which stemmed from the traction of the eastern Ukrainian separatist movement and the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. A political movement calling for Russia’s annexation of Donbass has existed since the late 1990s in small fringe groups with diverse ideological and cultural orientations. Small, non-influential groups such as Orthodox activists and supporters of neo-fascist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin were the primary forces behind the Ukrainian separatist movement. However, following the divisive Euromaidan revolution and the fall of the Yanukovych government, Russian forces capitalized on ideological cleavages in the east and supported pro-Russian nationalists seizing power in several cities within the Donbass region. Donbass became a warzone, upon which, pro-Russian separatists violently confronted Ukrainian government forces attempting to quell the separatist movement. Throughout the war, authorities in Donbass consistently aimed to develop pro-Russian nationalist sentiments by creating propaganda that dispelled false and Russian-favourable narratives to local citizens. Russia’s information warfare, which “takes place in the minds of human beings and uses emotions and beliefs as weapons,” was a central aspect of their campaign in Donbass. The conflict engulfed eastern Ukraine, altering the lives of eastern Ukrainians, and destabilizing the whole of Ukrainian society.
Map of Ukraine’s Donbas region. Photo: Goran tek-en/Wikimedia Commons. No changes were made. View the license here.
Donbass synthesizes war and the routines of daily life, depicting the entanglement between ideology and mundane activities such as riding the bus or walking down the street. Through his elliptic episodes, Loznitsa infuses a dark sense of satire amidst the true absurdities of war in Donbass. Thus, it is difficult to distinguish what is satire and what is an accurate reflection of real life, playing into Loznitsa’s ambiguity between fiction and reality. However, Loznitsa’s satiric lens serves an important role in emphasising key themes throughout the film, notably, the deceit of pro-Russian propaganda and the inhumanity of average citizens caught in the crossfire of the ideological conflict. Donbass portrays corruption and propaganda as an insidious force that distorts reality at an institutional level. Satire can be observed in the first scene, which features actors in a makeup trailer discussing their day-to-day life. They are then rushed outside to a staged site of a bombing and begin crying for the cameras as part of a fraudulent, propagandistic effort designed to drum up nationalism on Russian TV. This scene is followed up at the very end of the film with the actors in the same trailer discussing their lack of pay when a commander enters and guns down everyone. The camera cuts to a shot outside the trailer as the commander leaves and ambulances and film crew arrive and begin filming for what will be another propagandistic video. Loznitsa’s satire is evident when the cast members hired to film Russian propaganda are promptly murdered by a pro-Russian commander; their murders are instantly distorted by Russian media outlets which frame the actors’ deaths as the murder of innocent civilians by Ukrainian government forces. The satiric absurdity of these two scenes emphasizes the layers of deceit created by Russian forces to distort reality in the Donbass region.
In another scene, Loznitsa uses satire in a similar way to address institutional manipulation as a man struggles to understand that his car has been ‘expropriated’ by the regional police force for the sake of ‘anti-fascist’ war efforts. As the man sits down with a police officer to reclaim his car, he is asked questions such as, “You think we should fight on bicycles to defend you from fascists?”, and is accused of being a fascist-sympathiser. The man is forced to sign a document that entrusts his car to the police force and, as he argues that he needs his car to pick up his daughter from kindergarten, the police officer threatens to throw him in jail unless his friends can bring 100,000 hryvni in exchange. The man is escorted into a room filled with other men calling friends and asking them to bring money to the police headquarters, demonstrating the routine corruption of regional authorities. The irony of this scene is that the police are displaying corruption typically observed in authoritarian or “fascist” states, while justifying this corruption on the basis of ‘anti-fascism.’ Satire is infused in this episode to demonstrate the ways in which corruption and the distortion of reality are completely inescapable in eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian forces consistently victimize themselves and eastern-Ukraine, while robbing and murdering innocent civilians for the sake of villainizing ‘western fascists.’ Loznitsa uses satire to highlight the irony of this inhumane, paradoxical mentality. He pushes his narrative just far enough that his work is satiric but not enough that it fails to reflect the absurd reality of life in Donbass, thus blending fiction with reality. In this sense, Loznitsa’s satire serves as a medium of truth-telling.
Sergei Loznitsa, Tribute Guest at the “Crossing Europe 2015 Film Festival Guest Dinner.” Photo courtesy of Flickr, April 26, 2015.
Additionally, Loznitsa creates ambiguity between fiction and reality by using documentary-style film techniques such as long continuous shots with minimal cuts and shaky camera work with characters, on occasion, breaking the fourth wall and looking directly at the camera. The ambiguity of this type of videography emphasizes how the inhumanity of war seeps into civilian life. In the sixth episode of Donbass, a man takes viewers on a tour of an eastern Ukrainian city bomb shelter. This episode is particularly evocative of a documentary with the man addressing the camera and exhibiting the horrible living circumstances of those in the bunker. The man notes that the bunker has no light, heating, or water and that “everything is damp” with mould sprawling against the walls. At one point, the tour is taken over by a child who walks viewers through the cramped corridors of the bunker to a room with other children. The man reappears, explaining that some of the children should be starting kindergarten that upcoming year. Loznitsa’s strategy of having characters address viewers directly in a documentary-style episode that tours the bunker creates intimacy between the viewers and the film’s subjects. Viewers are forced to confront the harsh realities of war and the effect it has on citizens of various generations. This moment is a sobering reality check amidst the chaos of Donbass. The realism of this scene is counterbalanced when a wealthy woman attempts to convince her elderly mother to leave the shelter. When the mother refuses, the woman begins screaming and cursing while everyone in the bunker watches. The woman’s melodrama brings back elements of satire depicted throughout the film, juxtaposing reality with fictitious characters and snapping viewers back into Loznitsa’s hyperbolic depiction of real life.
Memorial to Ukrainians killed in Donbass War, Berehove, Ukraine. August 20, 2017. Photo courtesy of Adam Jones/Wikimedia Commons. View the license here.
The power of Loznitsa’s cinematography is reflected in one of the most stark and poignant scenes throughout the film, when authorities tie a Ukrainian loyalist to a telephone pole before executing him. A pro-Russian mob of Donbass citizens forms around the telephone pole while they shout abuse at the man, blaming him for the deaths of their neighbours and relatives. Others beat him, while bystanders casually film the event. During this episode, the camera is at eye level with the Ukrainian loyalist and the shaky footage continues for far longer than is comfortable to watch. As the camera gets pushed around by the violent mob, the chaotic and dizzying cinematography places the viewer at the centre of the confrontation. The event mirrors the Donbass conflict on a local scale. The violence and hatred conveyed by the mob reflects the violence surrounding them and the nationalistic notion of ‘western fascists’ cultivated by pro-Russian propaganda. Though the violence displayed by the mob conveys a loss of humanity, their inhumanity is subverted by their verbal attacks, an expression of grief fuelling their anger over the death of their loved ones. In some ways, this expression is a display of humanity at its most basic level. Underpinning the anger and violence towards the Ukrainian loyalist is the pain of loss and the trauma of war. This episode demonstrates a stark juxtaposition between the chaotic visuals of violence and inhumanity, and on a deeper level, the grief caused by institutional corruption, violence, and nationalism. The cinematography heightens the effect that the disturbing content has on the viewer and elevates Loznitsa’s nuanced depiction of war and its impacts on daily life.
The thirteen episodes that make up Donbass provide a harrowing depiction of modern war and its impact on various facets of society. Loznitsa creates the image of a chaotic, dilapidated region teeming with the corruption and deceit of pro-Russian separatists backed by Putin’s government. Donbass combs through the relentless lies of Russian propaganda to expose the surreal circumstances in eastern Ukraine. Though Donbass was created in 2018, it has become even more pertinent since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In many ways, Donbass serves as a visual preface to the events that are currently unfolding. Loznitsa’s creative storytelling offers a nuanced and intimate glimpse into the heart of the Donbass conflict by drawing human lives to the forefront of the issue. Using satire and cinematography, Loznitsa unveils the absurdity of the Donbass conflict while reminding his viewers what is at stake: the lives and humanity of citizens caught in the grim warzone of eastern Ukraine.
 Donbass, directed by Sergei Loznitsa(2018; Cannes, France, and Ukraine: Film Movement), Apple TV.
 Nikolay Mitrokhin, “Infiltration, instruction, invasion: Russia’s War in Donbass,” Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society 1, no.1 (2015): 221.
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 Holger Mölder and Vladimir Sazonov, “Information Warfare as the Hobbesian Concept of Modern Times – the Principles, Techniques, and Tools of Russian Information Operations in the Donbass,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 31, no.3 (2018): 308
 Donbass, 1:09:28.
 Yuliy Misnevich, “Modern authoritarianism and corruption”(Higher School of Economics Research Paper No. WP BRP 44/PS/2017), Social Science Research Network (2016): 21, https://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2728822.
 Loznitsa, Donbass, 42:23
Mölder, Holger, and Vladimir Sazonov. “Information Warfare as the Hobbesian Concept of Modern Times — the Principles, Techniques, and Tools of Russian Information Operations in the Donbass.” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 31, no. 3 (2018): 308-328. https://doi.org/10.1080/13518046.2018.1487204.
Loznitsa, Sergei, dir. Donbass. 2018; Cannes, France, and Ukraine: Film Movement. Apple TV
Mitrokhin, Nikolay. “Infiltration, instruction, invasion: Russia’s war in the Donbass.” Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society 1, no. 1 (2015): 219-249.
Nisnevich, Yuliy. “Modern authoritarianism and corruption.” (Higher School of Economics Research Paper No. WP BRP 44/PS/2017), Social Science Research Network (2016). https://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2728822.