“Where disinformation is named, it does not exist. Where it exists, it is not named.”
This statement of French culturologist and philosopher Guy Debord could be used as epigraph to Serhii Loznytsia’s new film Donbas.
Only one of this picture’s 13 novellas is not set in the occupied territories. The rest portray the bloody humdrum routine of “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”) in a fictional eastern Ukrainian town (the film was shot in Kryvyi Rih). Yet the film is not so much about the “Russian World” itself as about its main weapon – propaganda, whose mechanisms Loznytsia analyzes with characteristic mercilessness.
This begins with the first scene. A burly talkative woman (Tamara Yatsenko) argues the makeup artist in the film crew van. In the next scene, she and actors, disguised as chance passers-by on the street, will have to pose as “eyewitnesses” of enemy shelling against the background of the previously blown-up trolleybus and car.
There is a now popular term – post-truth – to describe what “Novorossiya” propagandists do. Although it appeared as far back as 1992, it became particularly topical in 2016 during Donald Trump’s election campaign and the UK Brexit referendum. At that very time, Oxford Dictionary named post-truth as word of the year, defining it as follows: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Post-truth is being spread by the mass media and Internet social networking sites, and it is filled with the last century’s major mythologemes. Trump has “Make America Great Again,” in the case of Russia and the Donbas it is the cult of victory (“victory hystreria”), the great USSR, Orthodoxy, struggle against “fascism” (when ethnic origin alone is enough for one to be branded as fascist), and political paranoia (enemies are all around). Reality is twisted in slogans. Time and space lose integrity in this warped reference frame, human lives serve as consumables, and a leader or a boss substitutes the hero. For this reason none of the stories can finish and, accordingly, Donbas is structured fragmentarily.
In each new scene, manipulation becomes more brazen and masterly. At the maternity home, blabbermouth Mykhalych (Borys Kamorzin) makes a show for white-smocked women extras, demonstrating the foodstuffs and medicines hidden in the office room of a thievish director – the latter is sitting quietly in the room next door and will then return the showman’s favor in the shape of rather a thick envelope. A group of Mongoloid-faced military keep telling a German journalist that they are “locals,” but they cannot recall their village’s name. A Ukrainian prisoner with a nameplate reading “punishment” is being tied to the post near a bus stop for a mob trial. A taxi minibus is cut to pieces by Russian Grad rockets, after which an ambushed hit squad guns down the separatists’ accompanying vehicle on a nighttime highway. The prologue troupe is really killed for the sake of another spot report, as the concluding credits appear in a static long shot – lies bite themselves on the tail.
Post-truth is literary owing to continuous propagandistic agitation: footage produces a greater effect if there is a necessary comment. The three scenes about “Novorossiya’s” ruling castes show literariness one way or another.
Visitors, who have brought miracle-working icons of Churilas Plenkovich and relics of Theodosis of Kherson, approach the boss, a serious-looking man with conspicuous tough-guy manners and a virago secretary. These saints are the film director’s invention that resembles the Gogolian motif of outlandish names, which produces almost full namesakes of Nikolai Gogol’s comedy Marriage in one of the following scenes of separatists’ wedding ceremony: Ivan Pavlovich Yaichnitsa (“fried eggs”) and Anzhela Tikhonovna Kuperdiagina form “the Yaichnitsa couple,” while Novorossiya MP Oksana Potsyk welcomes the newlyweds.
The satire with religious travelers, quite in the spirit of The Government Inspector, gives way to the flogging of a “Cossack” marauder by his comrades, as church bells are ringing. It is a clear allusion to Leo Tolstoy’s short story After the Ball, where a soldier is punished with the running of a gauntlet on Forgiveness Sunday. But, in contrast to the original source, there is no reflecting narrator here because is nobody to sympathize with. A gloomy irony: butchers scourge themselves.
All the “new Russian” things are both literary and ritual: adoration of relics, passage between two rows of men, and wedding. Bringing life into line with a prearranged plot and protocol is an integral part of dictatorship – individuality is not essential, there are no irreplaceable people, and you can fall victim on the boss’s whim. This is why those who contrast with the authorities’ arbitrary rule are not fighters or at least jesters but sufferers.
They are town residents who hide from shelling in a damp, dark, and musty basement, and passengers of the bus separatists stopped at the checkpoint, the simple-hearted businessman Senia who came to collect his stolen car from the militants, an old woman who, instead of laying into the captured Ukrainian “punisher,” meekly inquires when the bus is coming because she must go to see her daughter.
Almost everybody has their fair share of humiliations. An aggressive blonde, the secretary in the scene with the relics, bursts into the basement to take her mother to a comfortable house the bandits gave her. She showers the underground dwellers with brutal obscenities. Some men are taken from the bus, frisked, and forced to undress under supervision of the wicked female commander who spurts out a stream of consciousness about a “fatherland in danger.” The militants rob Senia of his car for good and exact a 150,000-dollar tribute from him.
In every case, people neither keep silent nor resist. Restrained reactions are in sharp contrast with theatrical lamentations at the pace of staged attacks, as well as with the revelry of the “new Russian” crowd in the scene of the wedding and the hysterical guffaw in the scene with prisoners of war. However, the literary motif in the film develops sequentially – to the proverbial and logical, almost like in The Overcoat, sympathy with little people. But, in the last analysis, it is not they but those who rule them who will turn out to be ghosts.
Internet video footage provided material for the Donbas script. Candid photography in the Internet is a matter of information, not film making. Accordingly, Oleh Mutu, who worked in all of Loznytsia’s feature films, subjects his individuality of a cameraman to dramaturgy. He is reincarnated as a bouncing TV camera in the bomb shelter, as a phone in the hands of a light-minded woman car driver on the road under shelling, as a motionless observer in very long shots. This kind of dissociation does not rule out the author’s ethically clear position – this is the only way to testify to what eschews testimony and to make real the factory of unreality.
It is not a document, not a drama, but quite a wide anatomical table – there can be perhaps no other optics for the hell of post-truth.
No one has ever suggested this view before.
After the Donbas premiere at the Odesa Festival, Serhii Loznytsia met Den/The Day’s correspondent.
“I TRIED TO SHOW VARIOUS ASPECTS OF THIS OUTRAGE”
How was the film born? Was there any concrete nuance?
“It is difficult to say how and when ideas emerge, but do you remember what was going on in this country four years ago? I closely watched the events and looked for information in the Internet. Some videos really struck me. I suddenly wished to work with this material because it seemed to me that it contained some very important things that influence our existence. In peacetime, you live in a routine, no events occur, and you don’t know the consciousness and subconsciousness of people next to you and in the neighboring region. And suddenly these ‘flowers’ blossomed there, and you get it in this form.”
What exactly was interesting there for you?
“It is the combination of things that usually do not combine in our mind, when the tragic and the funny, even the grotesque, simultaneously come side by side. So, it seemed interesting to me to work with this tragifarce.”
Speaking of grotesqueness, the ironical interpretation of Donbas is quite a new method for you.
“Yes, it is new. Obviously, I haven’t tackled this kind of topic or taken on this pattern before. (With a smile) I may be developing, though.”
What caused a fragmentary structure, without a recurring character?
“The idea. I strove to describe this space and show various aspects and manifestations of this outrage, this feast of disobedience, these Saturnalia, this hell. A recurring character, a single conflict would only hinder me. I thought up nothing new. There are similar in cinema. Luis Bunuel’s Phantom of Liberty and Sergey Eisenstein’s Strike are illustrative examples. As for documentaries, I have long been making films where there is no protagonist but there are masses. It was interesting to try this form in fictional films. I gathered 13 novellas and managed to combine them with each other. As it is in Bunuel’s film, a character passes to an episode, this episode unfolds, then another hero moves into the next episode – the only thing is that the audience should not get lost. I’ve already had an almost similar script of Babyn Yar. I failed to film that script, but I’ve made Donbas. This structure suggests a broad view – I get an opportunity to look at society as a whole and get a general picture.”
It seems to me this form quite fits in with this very type of events.
“Of course it does.”
What was the most difficult thing in this work? For you can’t see the documentary footage on which your script is based without a veil over your eyes – it draws a too strong emotional response…
“If had a veil over my eyes in the course of work, I would perhaps have to change profession. But I keep a certain distance from these events. A few steps aside. If there is no distance, you will be so much biased that you won’t be able to say a word. For this reason, I can watch these clips, they have an impact, of course, but I cut off my emotional links – it is perhaps just a professional quality.
“The point is different: as we filmed in Ukraine, it was difficult to organize the process. I invited department heads, a cameramen, a sound engineer, an editor, a line producer from various countries, where the film industry in very well developed. The director’s first assistant is a profession that I think does not exist in Ukraine. Local specialists had to learn administering and other things on the job. Unfortunately, there are so far no skills in ethics, working relations, and decision-making. So, it was not so easy to launch this process so that the film crew worked like clockwork. And don’t forget that this crew consists of more than 100 people. Yet we managed to do so.”
How long did the whole process last?
“We shot this difficult film in 31 days. We had no funds for a longer time, and I think what we had was enough. It took us about 3.5 months to prepare for work. I came to Ukraine on November 2 and left on March 31. I stayed here on location in Kryvyi Rih except for New Year’s Day. Otherwise, it was easy. If you know what you want, work with splendid actors, know how to work with non-professionals, can find beautiful places and talented people, the rest is a technical matter. So, six months were enough for us to complete the whole cycle.”
Like in the other fictional films, your director of photography was Oleh Mutu, one of the best at least in Europe. How did you work with him, what goals did you set?
“At first, at the preparatory stage, the director of photography, the production designer, the sound engineer, the editor, and I draw up a pattern of work. The first question is: what is the scene about? The second: in what way are we going to film it? The third: why is it precisely so? What and in what sequence will appear? Where will the camera be? What props are needed? Why are we filming from this angle and not from another? What intention stands behind this? Then, when the shooting sheet is prepared, I rehearse, and after the rehearsal, when I am ready to show something, Oleh comes, takes a look, and, if this differs from his concept, he suggests: ‘Serhii, I think it should be done so and so here.’ Then we find a solution. We maintain a very good relationship, and we understand each other so well that it seems that no more words are needed. Oleh is my eyes. It a unique instance when you find a person who coincides with and understands you and can do things better than you can imagine.”
Can you give some concrete examples?
“It is, for example, the basement scene, when some ‘daddy’ robs businessman Senia of his car. The scene is static. They sit and talk for 10 minutes. Oleh says: the actors are excellent, but everything is motionless. We must think something up to justify the camera’s movement and the change of angle. And I recalled being told that at the period when people were abducted, they had their phones, watches, and keys taken away and thrown on the table. The interrogated person was astonished that phones were ringing. And the militant who interrogated him would just come up and reject the calls. So, we need a table with scattered phones. It’s a ready-made text, as is this table announces: ‘You are neither the first nor the last.’ For if I’m saying something to you and you are busy rejecting the calls, the value of my word drops. The actor receives an opportunity not to ignore this text and the camera – to move. That’s all, excellent. Can you see how many problems will be solved at once? This is the way Oleh and I work. We set goals to each other.
“The wedding scene is very complicated. The newlyweds come in and walk through the corridor. The people in the corridor applaud. Good. Then a lot of people in the room take some actions, and I can’t see where and how the camera can find a proper place to become unnoticeable, while we should remain in action and get all that we’d like to get. Everything should remain alive. I know the finale and the beginning. And what is in the middle? We rehearse, and Oleh seeks opportunities for the camera. The first take, the second – and he finds it. But the scene is gigantic – 12 minutes in a very long shot. There is an insert in it only because the man who was to say some words forgot them, and it is very good and looks very natural. It adds authenticity and a sense of actuality, which we are in fact looking for. In a word, to shoot a scene like this well, the cameraman must follow his flair, and Oleh found the right picture. Further on, the picture is reproduced on the basis of all the takes. Oleh ‘knew the ropes’: he positioned the actors in such a way that all the necessary things were caught on camera. And I could add nothing because only the cameraman’s intuition can prompt how to move in the crowd.”
The wedding is immediately followed by a very difficult and horrible scene – the mob trial of the Ukrainian captive…
“We broke it down into four parts. Oleh was not very much satisfied with this, but we could not physically have shot it in one take, as there were a lot of various elements there. It is possible indoors, when there is a more or less uniform action. But the mob trial scene involves a lot of actors who came from different places and were very busy. They all came to me for a couple of days only. If I could have them for two weeks, I would have rehearsed the scene ideally and in detail. We would have also filmed it in one long shot, and it would have been even more impressive.”
It is impressive enough. I confirm this as a spectator.
“Yes, but I wanted a top class. Montage is a forced measure for me in this case, although it is unnoticeable there.”
Speaking of the abovementioned sense of actuality, can we say that Donbas is a document of a whole city’s immersion into madness?
“When we are saying ‘document,’ we mean something that confirms the truth of a certain fact. For example, a driving license is a document, for it confirms that you can drive a car. But in this case we are speaking about an artwork, even if it is based on real events. After seeing it, you can compare it with what surrounds you – no more than that. I take a sterner approach to words. Even documentary cinema is not a document in the direct sense of the word for me.”
OK, words. Why do you emphasize literary allusions – sometimes even direct references to Gogol’s and Tolstoy’s works – so much?
“Nobody did anything on purpose here – this comes out by itself. I once had the impudence (smiles) to be bruised with Russia literature. But this exists objectively because it is too deep-seated in us – it is not just texts but something we come across daily. We come across Gogol every day. Hence, we watch Donbas and begin to laugh the way we do when we watch, say, The Government Inspector. For there are completely Gogolian situations there. A spectator who has a different tradition, let us say, a Frenchman, cannot laugh in the same way – this will rather scare him but not us. For instance, does the title Dead Souls scare you?”
If I were a Frenchman, it would scare me.
“There you are! But this makes me anticipate a fascinating travel – not without humor and common sense.”
We are talking about classical subjects that had an impact on life. And do you think your film can change anything?
“Yes and no. It depends on what we mean, when we speak about changes. For example, you will wake up tomorrow after seeing the film and, as Kharms wrote, ‘Opening a thick book, I sat the whole day with an open mouth. I read 16 lines only and suddenly became strict to life.’ Of course, this won’t happen to Donbas. But, in culture and art, this and other films form a certain view, a certain language of describing the phenomenon we deal with. And this language is already changing our perception. Art in general or one film can do nothing. But further reevaluation and the world-view as a result of this reevaluation can well do this. So, I am very optimistic from this angle.”
And in conclusion: you mentioned a script about Babyn Yar. At what stage is this project now?
“Yes, I’ve had this script for a long time. We’ve launched a fund-raising campaign. I think we will raise funds this year and submit a request to the State Cinema Committee in October to support the filming.”
The film Donbas will be released on October 18.