Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass and the Senses of Provocation

When news broke that Russian forces had launched, on April 8, 2022, a missile attack on the Kramatorsk train station, which was filled with thousands of fleeing women and children at the time, the Russian Ministry of Defense issued a statement calling it a “provocation.” The Russian Foreign Ministry took the same line earlier with regard to the evidence of atrocities carried out against civilians in Bucha by Russian soldiers. What’s being claimed in such statements (and these are just examples, there are many more) is obscured somewhat by the unfamiliar use of the word in question.

Like the Russian word spetsial’nyi, which I wrote about earlier in the context of how to understand the spetsial’naia voennaia operatsiia (or “limited military engagement”) — a.k.a. “war” — currently being waged by Russia in Ukraine, the Russian term provokatsiia looks a lot like the English “provocation,” but the overlap between the two words does not match up for all contexts. The sense in which the word appears to be being used to discredit such violent acts is more like the English “fake” or better yet “staged.” The notion of being provoked is something of an implied follow up: you (gullible people) are being provoked, manipulated; this was made up in order to dupe you; it is not real; they are trying to control you, and so on. Conceptual wooliness in our brains facilitates this kind of disinformation tactic.

The relationship of the two parts (staged plus attempt to influence an audience to feel or believe something, do something, act in a particular way, often with political implications) is exactly reversed in the world of art. Here, generally, we know very well what we are witnessing is staged. In fact, that may be the reason we’ve come to see it: we’re in a theater, at a performance, in a museum, at a film screening. Someone claiming what we’re witnessing is “fake” in this sense would be missing the point of the performance itself. But if someone claimed it was a provocation, the second sense would be clear enough: this kind of performance, they would be suggesting, is meant to get you riled up.

Sergei Loznitsa’s 2018 feature film Donbass does a masterful job of integrating these two senses, first by separating them, then by merging them again, but in troubling ways that show how easily we can slip between one and the other. This, I would say, is in fact the film’s primary focus and organizing principle. The context of the war in Ukraine gives it added poignancy and makes it harder to watch now — a Ukrainian co-panelist with me at a post-screening discussion last week said he found it much funnier when he watched it in 2018 — but it is a very carefully constructed film that will continue to be watched in the post-war future, when this aspect will, I hope, re-surface as one of its most remarkable achievements.

The opening and closing frames, where film crews merge into news crews, do the bulk of this work, but all of the film’s thirteen vignettes can be understood in this way: all in some manner engage with the mixture of spectacle, performance, “staging,” on the one hand, and reportage, reality, or “truth,” on the other. They do this, moreover, in ways that often appear clear enough but open on to deeper implications.

When a boy takes over from an elderly man as guide to someone holding a camera (a film crew? a news crew?) walking through a labyrinthine bomb shelter filled with evacuees, he gestures, and the camera turns, illuminating huddled people everywhere in the dark. “This is a bed,” he says,” apparently imitating the words of an adult guide, “These are people.” These simple pronouncements are also the sorts of stripped down existential facts one finds in extreme conditions. There is no heat or light or running water in this space. “Here is a table” and “These are people” become much more than naive imitation. As this is a feature film, one might want to call them “provocations” in the rather straightforward artistic sense defined above. But not so fast.

Because these are also scenes from life, shaped from real-life stories that Loznitsa collected and stitched together — the stitching is a compositional tour de force — and some of the stories are based on YouTube videos made by people of themselves (the grotesque wedding scene appears to be one of these). Others are simply too familiar from Russian state TV “provocations,” while others appear to be drawn from what we see in wars in general, where people end up sheltering in underground structures with minimal light, water, and food. This makes the straightforward sense of art-designed-to-provoke less easy to apply.

But — I realize I’m shifting back and forth; this is what the film does to you — when the boy, at the end of his tour, points to a small table with a single candle burning on it and says, “There’s a table with a candle, our last one,” I find myself at an interpretive impasse. The apparently authentic presentation of these real, suffering people has now been punctuated by the cliché of the last candle, with all its manipulative implications.

The closing very long take of the murder scene that turns into a news site that is also a movie set contrasts the opening “first-person” hand-held camera that runs along with the actors — hurry up! step to! — and demonstrates another of the film’s strengths: its many and varied shots, sometimes extremely fast, sometimes extremely patient. It also repeats the ambivalence of the scene with the candle, as news becomes art, art becomes news, and propaganda lurks just beneath authenticity. This ambivalence is also the film’s saving grace, as it could easily tip too far in one direction, becoming a provocation of the least interesting kind. Thankfully, it doesn’t do that.

Maybe it will be funny again one day, too.

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