Sergei Loznitsa’s fictional film Donbass begins in a makeup studio, where a group of cantankerous actors are griping about another day on the job. They’re then rushed out onto the streets of eastern Ukraine by a film crew, before arriving at the staged site of a bombing, where they cry for the cameras. The actors are part of a propaganda effort designed to gin up nationalist pride on Russian TV and justify the Kremlin’s support of separatist militias in the Donbass region. It’s a grimly funny scene that’s tinged with despair: Though we viewers knows the action we’re seeing is staged, the bombed-out streets that form the movie’s backdrop are anything but.
Donbass won the Un Certain Regard award for Best Director at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. A series of 13 mordant vignettes set in the separatist region, it switches among scenes of bureaucratic madness in decaying town halls, preening warlords extorting local residents, and soldiers on the front lines plunging into the madness of combat. It’s a snapshot of conflict in Ukraine that was created years before Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country in 2022. Yet Loznitsa’s film—which finally gets a U.S. release today—perfectly captures the propagandistic surrealism of 21st-century warfare.
Loznitsa is one of the best-known filmmakers in Ukraine’s nascent cinema industry. His works focus on the country’s war history, the legacy of Russian control, and how propaganda can shape perceptions of both. “When I made Donbass in 2018, it was already clear to me that Russia wouldn’t stop at occupying these territories, that they’d want to go further,” Loznitsa told me in a recent interview. Loznitsa wanted to unpack the mentality behind Russia’s campaign in eastern Ukraine, and he realized that the invaders’ aggression necessitated that they rob Ukrainians of their personhood. “Every war leads to dehumanization. Every war has its own specific tools of how this dehumanization occurs. And this is exactly what I was showing in my film,” he said.
One bizarre tableau in Donbass sees a Ukrainian called to the headquarters of a Russian separatist militia, where he’s cheerfully informed that the soldiers have stolen his jeep, are using it in battle, and now require money from him (he will not be getting his jeep back). In another more plainly frightening scene, a Ukrainian loyalist is tied to a telephone pole and attacked by various passersby as others casually film the action on their phones, both amplifying the horror through the internet and setting it at a remove. Loznitsa is fascinated by the online aspect of contemporary warfare, where atrocities are not buried but broadcast—something that has persisted during the most recent Russian invasion. “The camera, the footage—they also become tools, in a way, that transmit the language of war,” he said.
Though Donbass (while obviously inspired by real events) is a work of fiction, Loznitsa’s prolific filmography is dominated by documentaries, many of them focused on Ukraine. His 2014 work Maidan chronicles the “Revolution of Dignity,” which overthrew Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian government; 2015’s The Event examines the final days of the Soviet Union. One of his newest films, also currently playing in limited release, is called Babi Yar: Context, a documentary about the 1941 massacre of 33,771 Jews near Kyiv by German soldiers assisted by Ukrainian collaborators. While Donbass swerves from comedy to tragedy, Babi Yar: Context is far more brutal. The film is a sober recounting of a mass shooting carried out by Nazis—part of what is sometimes dubbed the “Holocaust by bullets.” The killing is offscreen, but the footage of people being rounded up for execution and the testimony from war-crime tribunals years later are shocking and compelling.
Indeed, Loznitsa is most interested in charging headlong at sensitive topics in Ukraine’s history. “For almost the entire history of the Soviet Union, the Holocaust wasn’t spoken of; it was a taboo subject. So I felt it was absolutely necessary to talk about this tragedy,” Loznitsa said. “If we do not talk about the traumas and tragedies that occurred, they come back to haunt us … this subject is still very inflammatory and painful, and not particularly popular with Ukrainian society.” Loznitsa’s unflinching focus could stem from his understanding of how wartime imagery can be manipulated to promote jingoism and hide atrocity. Perhaps for this reason, he resists attempts to categorize his own work as a statement of advocacy. “Works of art, of course, can be political, but they [should] never be used as weapons in a political struggle,” he said. “Because the moment a work of art is used in political struggle, it becomes a propaganda tool.”
That nuanced outlook, even during a time of unbelievable turmoil, helps explain the recent controversy Loznitsa stirred: He was expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy for expressing support for Russian filmmakers. Though he had recently resigned from the European Film Academy in protest of what he perceived as a lax response to the Russian invasion, Loznitsa also criticized the notion of blanket bans of Russian films. He noted that many well-known directors in Russia, such as Andrey Zvyagintsev and Viktor Kossakovsky, had spoken out against the invasion (others, including the acclaimed Kantemir Balagov, have fled Russia entirely). “I was absolutely shocked when I learned about it,” he said of the Ukrainian Film Academy’s decision. “I’m convinced the boycott will be completely pointless, and nobody will benefit from it.”
Regardless, Loznitsa is resolute that he will continue to make films—and he is currently working on several. When I spoke with him, he seemed acutely aware that the war was drawing more attention to the country’s movies. “I need to continue doing what I do best, to make cinema,” he said. “In general, what art can do, and what we should do as artists, is to try to reflect upon the events happening to us.” During this uncertain present, Loznitsa might be doing the work of his life.