Sometimes we might want to go to the cinema for warmth, comfort, and reassurance, while at other times it could be shallow, fast-moving, forgettable thrills that we seek – and then there are the feature films that offer us a true adventure, one well outside of our comfort zone; an experience engineered by artists who are unafraid to challenge our intellect as well as our emotions.
On the evidence provided by Donbass, Sergei Loznitsa deserves to be classed as an adventurous cinematic visionary. This is not to suggest that his latest film is a complete, unequivocal artistic success, but it is certainly an imaginative and technical tour-de-force, and an understandable winner of the Best Director Prize in the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Rather than using traditional tools of structural storytelling – like distinct characters and careful plotting – to help guide us through the hellish complexities of Eastern Ukraine’s ‘hybrid war’ , Loznitsa, directing his own script, has engineered an episodic, kaleidoscopic journey for his viewers, one that is ultimately circular in terms of its destination. The extent to which this two-hour feature flows smoothly, almost imperceptibly, from start to finish, despite being composed of thirteen scenes that virtually depict thirteen different groups of people, is testament to the filmmaking skill and thematic focus on display here.
Far from being the miserablist slog that any description of a screen drama set in a European war zone may suggest, there is definite black comedy and bracing irony to be found in many of the lives and situations depicted in Donbass. Any cinema fan familiar with Emir Kusturica’s Palme D’or-winning 1995 Serbian epic Underground will have a rough idea of the general tone that they can expect from Loznitsa’s own vision. Like the earlier film, Donbass has been submitted for Academy Award consideration as Best Foreign Language Film.
The undeniable virtues to be found in Donbass (a title taken from the region in which it is set) will automatically make the film a worthwhile watch for certain audiences, even if it engenders a greater level of admiration and respect than affection and warmth – but then, these are not easy or cheerful times for anyone caught up in the events that we see reflected through Sergei Loznitsa’s lens. Those of us who are blessed enough to be at a safe distance from any form of serious armed conflict would sometimes do well to have our eyes opened just that little bit more by brave and accomplished motion pictures like this one.
Donbass opens in cinemas around Australia on October 18th.
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