Although he’s long been acclaimed on the international festival circuit, with five movies at Cannes in the past decade, it has taken the war in Ukraine to bring Sergei Loznitsa his due attention in the U.S. His documentary Babi Yar. Context, about a notorious massacre of Jews that took place outside Kyiv during World War II, opened in the U.S. last week, and his 2018 movie Donbass, a fiction feature set during the 2014 conflict between Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian separatists, will see a belated theatrical release beginning April 8. New York’s IFC Center is pairing the latter with screenings of Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature and Maidan, the latter a documentary about the uprising that unseated Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, part of the anti-corruption movement that eventually swept Volodymyr Zelensky into office.
Over the past few months, Donbass has been screened as a benefit for Ukrainian relief around the U.S. and the world. But while that’s a noble cause, and Loznitsa, who now lives in Lithuania, considers himself a Ukrainian “patriot,” Donbass isn’t the usual benefit-screening fare. Instead, it’s a prickly and caustic depiction of a country gripped by anger and despair. The movie opens in a makeup trailer, with cast members getting ready to shoot a scene that never seems to materialize, and ends with that same cast being shot to death by separatist troops. After they’re dead, Loznitsa cuts to an exterior long shot of the trailer and watches for minutes as emergency vehicles slowly make their way to the scene of the crime, followed by a TV reporter who expresses shock that such a thing could disturb “the peaceful lives of the people of Donbass.”
The joke—a deeply dark one—is that Loznitsa has shown us their lives are anything but. Inspired by viral video clips of the Donbass war, he crafted what amounts to a series of blackout comedy sketches, including one where a government official laboriously catalogues every piece of black-market goods in what purports to be a hospital for children (including several refrigerators filled to bursting with sausages), and then reveals himself to be a key part of the graft.
Loznitsa’s unsparing eye, which reveals itself in the archival documentaries he has made about such subjects as Stalin’s funeral and the fall of the Soviet Union, has often been turned on his homeland. One scene in Babi Yar shows a Ukrainian civilian affixing a poster reading “Hitler the Liberator” to a trolley car during the Nazi occupation of Kiev. “A real patriot has to be honest in depicting his country,” Loznitsa said last week via Zoom. “I want my country to get better. I want my country to improve in order for this change to happen. It’s crucial to acknowledge the current problems and to think about them. If somebody doesn’t want to think about it, it’s their problem, not mine.”
In the past couple of months, Loznitsa has found himself something of a man with without a country, cinematically speaking. In February, he quit the European Film Academy in protest over the organization’s tepid response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine; a few weeks later he was expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy for opposing a worldwide boycott of Russian films. “I was really very upset and surprised because the text that they published seemed to me, very mild, very delicate,” he says of the decision to leave the EFA. “They didn’t even use the word war, and it just seemed to be completely inappropriate.” And as for getting kicked out of the Ukrainian organization, “I obviously found that very strange. This decision was taken by the management of the Academy, but it doesn’t mean that this opinion is actually shared by the entire country. I know for sure that it’s not shared by the president of the country, and it’s not shared by a large number of my compatriots. I think that, by making this decision, the Ukrainian Film Academy, first and foremost, discredited themselves in the eyes of the civilized world. It’s also not only that they discredited themselves, but they also discredited the entire country.”
Many of the incidents in Donbass were inspired by YouTube clips that circulated online—the kinds of clips the whole world has become more familiar with since the beginning of the war. Normally, Loznitsa says, the filmmakers’ job, whether they’re working in fiction or nonfiction, is to take a step back—or several steps in the case of a movie like Babi Yar—and reflect. “Sometimes an emotional reaction can actually impact one’s ability to understand,” he says. But in the case of the images we have seen from Ukraine—especially the horrors that emerged from the massacre in Bucha after we spoke—they can speak for themselves. “The overwhelming reaction that we have when we watch this footage is just hatred towards those who cause this horror,” he says. “It is really very open, very honest. There can be no misinterpretations of the images that we have in front of our eyes now.”
The power of those videos, though, can cut both ways. “I think that everything is pretty clear,” Loznitsa says. “It’s hard not to get it from what we see. Basically, what’s happening is a humanitarian catastrophe—and I would say it’s a humanitarian catastrophe on the global level, on the level of humanity at large, not just Ukraine. We see cities being destroyed. We see people being killed. So what’s there not to understand?” But it’s important to think about the toll that watching those videos can take, and not just the impact they have. Babi Yar contains images of almost unspeakable brutality, but it is circumspect about the massacre itself, showing piles of clothing and discarded items but declining to offer up Jewish corpses as spectacle. The videos emanating from Ukraine tell us what’s going on, Loznitsa says, but “what we don’t see is the destruction of the souls of those people who are watching the videos, of the onlookers, of the witnesses, of those who are watching the videos of the Ukrainian people being killed and of the Ukrainian cities being destroyed. You don’t have the images of the destruction of human souls, which is happening on the global level.”
I ask Loznitsa what it is we’re not seeing, and he gives an answer that might seem surprising coming from a filmmaker. “Throughout this war, I tend to read more than to watch,” he says. “The videos have a huge emotional impact, and sometimes you’re not capable of understanding anything. When you read reports, in a way, you’re more capable of thinking and of analyzing, rather than just being shocked.”