‘Donbass’ Director: My Film’s Grotesque Corruption Isn’t Just in Ukraine, It Reaches Around the World

TheWrap Oscar magazine: “In America, in Brazil, they elected a man because he was giving a performance and saying the kind of things you could never before say in a civilized society,” says Sergei Loznitsa

A version of this story about “Donbass” first appeared in the Foreign Language Issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

The war in eastern Ukraine between the government and the Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic is the subject of Sergei Loznitsa’s acidic and episodic film “Donbass,” part black comedy and part tragedy.

The film, which looks at the violence and corruption at every level of society, is Ukraine’s submission in this year’s Oscar foreign-language race. This interview with the prolific director, who has released three movies this year, is part of a series of conversations TheWrap had with the directors of contending films.

I understand the film was inspired by YouTube videos.
SERGEI LOZNITSA: For the script, I did use some YouTube videos which I have seen. Or propaganda videos on the news. The rest are different episodes I heard from my friends who were there, who escaped from that territory.

And many of the people who played in my film have a connection — they were in that region and are now refugees of that war.

Why did you make it so episodic, with stories that don’t really connect?
It’s simple: I stole this idea from Buñuel. He made this film, “The Phantom of Liberty.” I wanted to describe society and describe the situation, and for that description I either have a protagonist who is a journalist, or I don’t need a protagonist. Because in all situation where I would like to be, what kind of person could be witnessing all these situations? Only a bird. So that’s why I just forget about protagonist. Situation is protagonist.

Or Ukraine is the protagonist?
Not Ukraine. This kind of disease. It’s not everywhere in Ukraine, this disease. This kind of destruction and dehumanization, where the human becomes an animal.

The tone varies from tragedy to comedy to farce, but underneath it all is a real sense of anger at the violence and corruption that has enveloped this region.
Yeah, yeah, it’s true. It’s also very strange, from where this humor comes from. All this grotesquerie, the carnivalization of this situation, comes from situation itself. There are Russian soldiers lying about who they are, lying and playing a role. It reminds me of Molière.

And this kind of role-playing and hypocrisy applies a lot in recent politics. Our politicians try to hide who they are, and what they do is a performance. That happens all around the world — in America, in the election in Brazil. They elected a man because he was giving a performance, and that allowed him to say the kind of things you could never before say in a civilized society.

You make films constantly, alternating between documentaries and narrative features. Why so busy?
I like making films and I can do it quickly. So this year, I have “Donbass.” And I have “The Trial,” which is footage of Stalin’s trials from 1930 — it is a narrative, too, because the charges were fabricated and everyone in the courtroom, even the accused, knew they were giving a performance. And I have “Victory Day.” In Russia, the story of World War II is that they defeated Germany. They don’t talk about the United States or Great Britain or any other country. They celebrate it on May 9, and Russians have celebrations in Germany, which is very strange.

All of these films connect to each other — “Donbass,” “Victory Day” and “The Trial.” They connect with the topic: show, performance and theater unite all these films.

To read more of TheWrap’s Foreign Language Issue, click here.