Four films by Sergei Loznitsa to better understand the war in Ukraine

From Donbass to Babi Yar. Context, the work of the Ukrainian filmmaker sheds light on this conflict.

As the war in Ukraine enters its fourth week, the films of the Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa allow us to shed light on this conflict in a different (more radical, more scathing) way. The filmmaker answered our questions recently, but a guided tour of his radioactive works allows you to understand what is happening there. If Loznitsa does not intend to give a history lesson or a geopolitical analysis (we are far from Below the cards), some of his films diffuse a feeling of suffocating reality and allow us to apprehend in an infra, even almost mental way, this war which shakes the world.

Sergeï Loznitsa: “Ukraine has become a gigantic place of massacre…”

Donbass (2018) – the border that drives you crazy

A troupe of actors prepares in a caravan. We make up the women, who gossip and insult each other until the arrival of a soldier. The latter silences everyone, orders the troupe to get in place and the actors run out into a landscape of ruins. Under the watchful eye of Russian journalists, they begin to act as witnesses to a terrorist act which has just left dozens dead. From the start, Donbass therefore operates on the inversion of values.

With this funny opening, Loznitsa recalls first of all that the conflict which has ravaged the Donbass since 2014 is a war of communication “where the true is a moment of the false” as Guy Debord said. It also shows that there, nothing makes sense anymore. The propaganda presents itself as the real, the dead look a little fake, and even the love looks like a vision of hate (incredible Fellini wedding sequence). This is the principle of this crazy film, “hybrid” (as this conflict is called) and halfway between black comedy (in a way Four Lions) and the documenter. An incredibly shot trip that plays with a marabout-of-string narration (it’s about 13 farcical and unsettling vignettes) to take us on a hallucinated drift through the basements of a ravaged region. This series of terrifying sketches above all shows the arbitrariness of a society plagued by corruption, madness and cruelty. Denouncing the Russian stranglehold on this piece of Ukraine, we see militias mistreating the resilient inhabitants (incredible sequence from the bus), crooked politicians having buckets of shit dumped on their faces, women ready to do anything to save their mothers , or Ukrainians being lynched by enraged citizens. Routine violence was therefore already there – definitively shattering what remained of humanity in that corner of Europe. Long before February 2022, Loznitsa’s rage was boiling. And long before February 2022, Ukraine was in a state of decomposition, gamed by the madness of its Russian “masters”…

We may not have heard what Loznitsa was telling us at the time. It might be time to hear it now.

Available on VOD

Maidan (2014) – the power of the people

If we try to understand the origins of the war in Ukraine, we necessarily go through Maidan Square. In the winter of 2013-2014, Ukrainians took to the streets of Kyiv en masse to drive out their corrupt leaders and demand a rapprochement with the EU.

So on the set of a fiction, Loznitsa drops everything and decides to chronicle this revolt. Maidan therefore follows the chronology of the demonstrations step by step. Don’t wait for a wikipedia doc – for that, prefer the Netflix doc winter on fire. Devoid of any commentary, evacuating any testimony in front of the camera, the film is built on long static shots recording the demonstrations, the speeches and the repression. Loznitsa advances between meetings, supplies for the insurgents, listening to speakers, before violence sets the square ablaze – assaults by the police, battles with cobblestones and Molotov cocktails… Maidan basically only hada single ambition. Elevate the Ukrainian crowd to the rank of character, transform this aggregate into a living force of History. A way of recalling the universality of this emancipatory struggle and of plunging the spectator into the heart of this fight.

Available on VOD

A sweet woman (2017) – Russian madness

At the time, this is what people wrote about this film, which remains without doubt the filmmaker’s most powerful work.

For a long, very long time, we follow a silent, inert woman, an almost mute witness tossed about in a staggering carnivalesque trip to the depths of a falsely naturalistic Russia. They returned to her the parcel of food and clothes that she had taken the trouble to send to her husband in prison. She is stubborn, she would like to understand, but no one bothers to answer her. “Contrary to the rules”. “Make a complaint”. “I am not an intelligence service”. “Do you think you are the only one having problems? In a bus, at the post office, in a salad cart, in a station hall, in a gloomy bar, in a police station, in a meeting of dead drunk Slavic freaks playing at getting naked, our heroine is silent, observes, suffers, abused by all those who surround her, ignore her, insult her, threaten her, yell at her or piss on her. As if an entire country were dumping its bile sourness on its poor head. She goes from one counter to the next, from one malfunction to another, from gross injustice to violent indifference without flinching, because she is used to it and she has no choice. The Ukrainian Sergei Loznitsa is here at the usual border of his style: where true-false naturalism and mental documentary (documentary?) lead to what Russian drinkers call their “soul”, this place beyond the absurd , drunkenness and reason – beyond reality. The gentle woman does not move, nor yields, nor breaks, in the eye of a top that draws the circles of a very Russian Hell (traces of Gogol or Dostoyevsky, of which the film is intended to be a distant adaptation, impact recent work by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievitch) but which also owes a lot to Kafka reviewed by David Lynch. When the heroine finds herself embarked in a carriage in a 19th century banquet, where all the characters of the film throw themselves one by one into toasts in honor of eternal Russia and of humanity, then we know that the dizzying round of the last two centuries of the “great country” ended up winning, with no hope of return. Because if the woman is sweet, Russian madness is furious.”

And when we met him to ask him where the violence in his films came from, this is what the filmmaker told us:

I started making films because I realized that with a camera I could say what many people couldn’t express. Those who, for 70 years, had been deprived of the right to life, and the right to speak. Like my family. My mother came from a Cossack family. Farmers and military men, who served the Tsar as soldiers and landowners. They were massacred because they directly represented the central power. My mother was from a very small village, but with a very large family, many cousins, fourteen or fifteen children… After the Revolution of 1917, then the purges of the 1930s, and finally the Second World War, this huge family was totally decimated. Only three people remained: my grandmother, my mother and my aunt. All the others had been exterminated, because they were Cossacks. And it was the same thing on my father’s side: exterminated. All. You understand that my “love” for Soviet power has very deep roots..”

The furious madness of Putin’s Russia has been exposed for a month now and in the mode of a tale, A sweet woman heralded the apocalypse unfolding today.

Available on Premiere Max

Babi Yar. context (2021) – the forbidden story

Stupor on the hashtags #Cinema and #History. A fortnight ago, we learned that the Babi Yar memorial had been hit by Russian missiles – we will discover a few days later that the site had been miraculously spared. Babi Yar is the name of a ravine where, in September 1941, the Nazis shot dead 33,000 Jews from the region. Very quickly the SS tried to erase the traces of the massacre, then years later, it was the Soviets who muzzled the local memory by filling the ravine with industrial waste. No commemoration possible at Babi Yar seemed to say the successive governments. To counter this work of burial Loznitsa has imagined a docu of staggering brutality Babi Yar. context. Presented at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, in a special screening, the film compiles archive images and examines the greatest massacre by bullets of the Shoah, holding up a mirror to those who continue to mix history and national romance. Beyond the horror, what this film exposes is the way in which the Soviet regime monopolized the collective memory of the Ukrainians. “I believe this film is necessary to move Babi Yar from a place of oblivion to a place of memory“, explained Loznitsa at the time. Supreme irony: while the bombs are still raining on Kyiv, while the Memorial has almost been wiped off the map, this paralyzing object is still unpublished in France, no distributor having for it scheduled time to air it, as if the story was doomed to stammer.

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