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ODESA 2018

Sergei Loznitsa • Director of Donbass

“Our society is getting infantilised”


- We met up with prolific Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, who has presented three films this year: Victory Day, Donbass and The Trial

Sergei Loznitsa  • Director of Donbass

Following its premiere at Cannes as the opening film of Un Certain Regard, where it also picked up the Best Director Award, Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass [+see also:
film review
interview: Sergei Loznitsa
film profile
has just been screened in the Festival of Festivals section of the Odesa International Film Festival. It shows the many, frequently absurd, facets of the civil war in Eastern Ukraine. Based on real-life events and divided into 13 segments, it intertwines drama and the grotesque, diving headfirst into the absurdities of war.

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Cineuropa: Last time we met, we talked about evil repeating itself. It’s a subject that comes up in Donbass as well.
Sergei Loznitsa: It’s a very simple metaphor. When you start playing with evil, you never think you might end up as just another one of its victims. The people behind Stalin’s Great Terror created a lie, and then fell victim to it as well. Genrikh Yagoda, who served as a director of the NKVD, or the People’s Commissar for Justice, Nikolai Krylenko, were branded as fascist terrorists and executed. Before that, they themselves would sentence people to death for the exact same reason.

My last documentary, Victory Day [+see also:
film review
film profile
, showed the celebrations on 9 May in Treptower Park – the day when, according to Soviet historians, the USSR defeated Germany. Somehow, they failed to mention the efforts of the Allied forces and their contribution to the cause of fighting Hitler. You can still see quotes from Stalin on the walls of the Treptower Park memorial. As far as I’m concerned, this is just as impossible and wrong as plastering sentences from Mein Kampf on the walls of Berlin’s houses. In Russia, there is a huge revival of Stalinist mythology, and Stalin is again being presented to the younger generation as one of the greatest leaders of the country and an “efficient manager”. In my opinion, these things are happening because communism was never put on trial. What we badly needed was a “Nuremberg trial” on communism. Unless such a trial takes place, and the dogma and its practice are pronounced criminal and evil, the totalitarian monster will keep coming back again and again, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. It’s a vicious circle, and I wanted to warn people about this danger. 

It’s a very direct warning, especially coming from you. Why did you decide to spell things out more clearly this time?
There is still a lot hidden between the lines, but some issues have to be pronounced openly. All of the episodes are based on real-life events; I just changed them a little. I found most of the episodes on YouTube. One episode, about a German journalist and his Ukrainian companion, a “fixer” and photographer, I shot with the exact same Ukrainian “fixer”. First, he shared his experience with me, and I wrote a scene based on his story. Afterwards, during the casting stage, I realised that he should “play” himself in the film. It was very important for me to keep things as authentic as possible. You may think it’s all a product of my imagination, but this is not the case. Many things in life are just like that – they seem bizarre and impossible, and yet they are happening for real. Take the World Cup, for example: after all that happened, after all of these crimes committed by the Russian authorities – the war in Ukraine, the occupation, the annexation of Crimea – everybody just decided to ignore it and come to Russia to play football. It seems to me that our society is getting infantilised. 

This also gives rise to the frequently absurd humour that is very much present in the film.
I think here, in Ukraine, the reaction was completely different from the one in Cannes. Over there, people were more afraid of what they saw, and they were afraid to laugh. Here, it was easier for the audience to identify with the narrative, to pick up the contexts. The film has its roots, among other sources, in the Russian literary tradition. Take Bulgakov or Gogol’s Dead Souls. Dead souls? It’s funny. We have this particular way of describing evil because if you throw in some humour, it makes it seem less threatening. Literature can create this kind of protection, and to a certain extent, cinema can do it as well. Of course, people were shocked by some of the episodes, but they have fallen in love with others, mostly because I am showing something they know only too well. When you have a piece of extremely hot metal, you need something else to grab it with – like an artificial arm, for example. The humour and irony in my film are necessary tools, enabling the viewer to deal with certain heavy topics. 

A while ago you mentioned that you would like to make a film without a single main protagonist, and you have finally succeeded. Why was it so important?
In every episode of the film, I deal with corruption: financial, moral or the corruption of power. I wanted to show different people and different perspectives on these events on a wider scale. In my next film, I will keep a similar structure and make it even more complex. You can’t speak about all of these topics, about society, political movements or history in general based on one, singular experience. It’s my intention to develop this new direction in cinema and to work with the film language, which will enable me to build a narrative without a protagonist. The reason is very simple: if you focus on one single person, you can’t really get the whole picture.

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