The opening of the 71st iteration of the Cannes Film Festival is upon us, along with all the pomp and splendor that it entails. As usual, the festival is a temple to both cinema and extreme sensuous hedonism, with tremendous parties thrown by film companies and oligarchs on private yachts (some of which dwarf many small islands, and some this Tablet correspondent will do his best to attend for the sake of our readers).
Another annual tradition also lovingly kept up is the surfeit of political and legal drama accompanying the world’s most glamorous film festival. Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a near mythical production awaited by fans of cinema for decades, will be screened after all as the Festival’s closing film in the wake of a last-minute Paris court decision to throw out a lawsuit from an irate producer and his lawyer son. (The Festival sent out a gloating triumphalist press release earlier Thursday claiming to be “a unique forum for freedom of expression.”) Elsewhere, the renowned French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, long accused of anti-Semitism, announced at the start of the competition that he would be joining a boycott of Israeli cinema by several dozen French film-industry professionals. Numerous campaigns for increased representation of women in competition ended with institutional disappointment as only a handful were selected, despite the ghost of Harvey Weinstein hovering over festivities. A pair of celebrated Russian and Iranian dissident film makers in the competition program were not allowed to travel to their openings because of house arrests by their respective nations.
The commencement of the Cannes Film Festival also coincided with an even more auspicious historical moment: Yesterday marked the 73rd anniversary of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Soviet Union. As is now commonly understood, the memory of World War II has become an ideological flashpoint across the post-Soviet world. Some commentators have even gone so far as to make the case that manipulated memories of the Soviet victory over the Nazis now constitute the primary ideological pillar of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule of the Russian federation. Across Ukraine, the tense annual tradition of dueling historical commemorations of the conclusion of the war took place on May 8 and 9. In the south of Ukraine, in my beloved Odessa, a large pro-Russian crowd of demonstrators marched along the “Alley of Glory” carrying pictures of their veteran ancestors while chanting “Donbass, we are with you!” It is a tremendous pity that none of those marching in support of the benighted region will likely have a chance to watch the acerbic Donbass by Ukraine’s storied auteur Sergei Loznitsa.
While the blooming of the Ukrainian film industry since the start of the conflict with Russia has been the great story of the coalescing of Ukrainian civic nationalism, Loznitsa’s formally rigorous vision has constituted the crown jewel of Ukrainian cinema for more than a decade. Loznitsa’s films are astringent, humanistic, urbane, and dark works of formalist art cinema. The Ukrainians sent a vice-prime minister to lead the delegation to the opening. (Full disclosure: Loznitsa and I know each other a bit from the Ukrainian film festival circuit and being good Russians we have shared a few glasses on several occasions.) A Cannes festival veteran, Loznitsa’s sardonic war film opened the Un Certain Regard parallel program. For those who might have wondered why a star of world cinema and a special favorite of Cannes power director Thierry Frémaux was being passed over for the main competition, Loznitsa explained in his English language comments that the film had only been completed six weeks earlier. Fremaux would himself admit on stage the fact that the festival’s strict filing deadline had been waived in this case.
During the opening ceremony, Fremaux also recalled having once inquired of Loznitsa whether the auteur considered himself to be a Russian or a Ukrainian. Loznitsa replied that he had a Ukrainian passport and a Russian soul but that it was all very much more complicated. Indeed, having been born in Belarus, coming of age in Kiev, learning his film craft in Moscow, and having spent exactly half his life in the Soviet Union, Loznitsa’s culture is in fact totally and unambiguously Russian. Though he makes films about the Russian world, with last year’s A Gentle Creature explicitly ruminating on Dostoevsky and the phantasmagoric tinge of bureaucratic proceduralism, the realm of Russian culture that Loznitsa’s cinema inhabits is decidedly liberal. (I previously wrote about his Maidan protest documentary in my 2014 Cannes dispatch for Tablet.) Loznitsa’s geographically unmoored post-Soviet culture is categorically not the revanchist “Russkiy Mir” (the so-called “Russian world” of Kremlin propaganda) of authoritarian Putinism. It has nothing to do with the neo-imperialist fantasia of the sort upheld by the malevolent cast of mercenaries, brigands, fanatics, and soldiers of fortune who run rampant in Ukraine’s occupied eastern regions (though the spelling of the film’s name in the Russian manner has not gone unnoticed by certain Ukrainian nationalists).
Donbass is the work of a Russophone patriot of sovereign Ukraine and it is composed of 13 interwoven vignettes, all based on grotesque or comic real life events, that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the course of the war over the last four years. Donbass is set in Ukraine’s eastern regions, torn asunder by a chaotic occupation by Russian-led separatist militias . Almost surrealist levels of satire portray the opportunists, bandits, and lowlifes who menace a society in the wake of a collapse of civilized social structures. Corruption reigns supreme as property is expropriated by greedy warlords and gangsters under the guise of fighting fascism. A separatist mercenary who stops a bus full of civilians takes a cut of meat from an old woman for his soup. At the next roadblock a Russian servicewoman lines the men in the bus up and harangues them with patriotic speeches before stripping them naked. The film is unabashedly patriotic, yet one of the scenes suggests a Ukrainian army officer takes bribes to let a separatist commander through a checkpoint.
A sequence is set in an underground bunker where refugees of the conflict live in misery and squalor points to the human costs of the war to the ordinary residents of the Donbass. A woman disrupts a meeting of the city council, dumping a bucket of feces over the head of the chairman, and gets embroiled in a screaming match with a Ukrainian journalist. A harrowing scene (once again based on real events) concerns a Ukrainian POW tied to a pole and debased by a crowd in the middle of Donetsk, with enraged babushkas in headscarves leading the crowd in beating the humiliated Ukrainian soldier with their fists and canes. Accompanied by a bemused local translator, a German journalist asks Russian military servicemen with the Asian facial features of residents of Russia’s Siberian Buryat Republic if they are locals. Much of the film deals with the literal production of “fake news,” with the opening set piece showing actors preparing for the role of sobbing on television—and Loznitsa takes a cruel satisfaction in having the separatists exact a symbolic cost from these opportunistic characters at the film’s conclusion. (In real life there were indeed amateur actors who travelled from Ukrainian city to Ukrainian city to partake in weepy television interviews for the sake of Russian nightly news shows.)
The staging and framing of the film is scabrous; the film’s director of photography is the Romanian new-wave stalwart Oleg Mutu, who returns to collaborate with Loznitsa. Several early reviews of Donbass have uniformly empathized with the complexity and opaque quality of the material with which Loznitsa worked. Several of my critic colleagues admitted to me after the screening that certain parts of the film were difficult to follow for anyone who was not thoroughly steeped in the minutiae of the conflict. While acknowledging the film to be Loznitsa’s “arguably most dramatically coherent and accessible,” one critic nonetheless inveighed that the director “risks creating a dry formalist exercise that’s hard to understand and engage with for non-Slavs or anyone averse to High Art-House cinema.” Telling apart the different groups of soldiers and separatists in their almost identical camo outfits is indeed difficult, even if one can tell Novorossiya patches from Ukrainian army ones, and this is likely part of the point.
Loznitsa is not likely to be concerned by critiques of incomprehensibility, even if Donbass offers us the best fictionalized account of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict to have appeared to date. One of the last segments of the film, an extended portrait of a raucous wedding taking place under the auspices of the newly codified laws of Novorossiya—complete with flowery and grotesque extended toasts read out by drunken commanders of mercenary forces—drives home the point. The elegant, urbane, and ironic Loznitsa is an unabashed cultural elitist and Donbass makes clear a personal view that the new regime constructed in Ukraine’s occupied territories constitutes an assault on Russian culture (not to mention taste) as well as universal human rights.
Vladislav Davidzon’s dispatches from Cannes will continue this week and next.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.