The notion all reality is just an opinion is something you hear a lot these days in documentary circles. That cinema is always an edit, and an act – with a conscious agenda or not – of ideological imposition over the raw world from which it’s selected. Acute awareness of this has fed the rising popularity of the doc-fiction hybrid over the last decade. Documentarians are respected increasingly as artists and less as knock-off journalists, with all the license to playfully experiment which that entails, and less sense of duty to the format of balanced, opposing angles as some kind of summation of “truth”. Not that the notion of truth has gone out the window – it’s just embraced more as a concept of essence rather than evidence, in which form is more or less irrelevant as long as it makes something visible in a way we haven’t before seen it.

But the fake news era has hit like a disorienting hallucinogen in the bloodstream of mediated reality. Dark political times in which misinformation as propaganda proliferates with unprecedented global reach has brought about a certain crisis of subjectivity. The real has never been easy to label – but now we must grapple with whether inherent subjectivity can be weapon enough in a climate of brazen, cynical lying. Against the backdrop of this quandary, or rather into its messy midst, came two documentaries this year on the conflict in Crimea from starkly opposed partisan views: Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which screened at the Odesa International Film Festival in Ukraine after first bowing in Cannes, and Aliona Polunina’s Their Own Republic, which had its world premiere in Portugal at Doclisboa. It’s instructive to contrast their vantage-points in regard to access, critique and mythologisation, and the very different environments in which they were received. Warring contexts, we might say.

Donbass at the Odesa International Film Festival

The Ukrainian premiere of Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass at the Odesa International Film Festival was an intense affair, with many in the packed auditorium visibly shaken. That’s hardly surprising. It played to a home crowd heavily invested in the ongoing suffering further east in their nation – a warzone the director depicts as a brutal hell on earth. The film offers no consoling vision of nobility under adversity; its overriding sense is of a grotesque and bleak existential absurdity. Its title is loaded, almost ironic, in that it reveals not any essence of Donbass as a place, but rather how it’s been distorted for outside eyes through media manipulation. We’re plunged into a hall of mirrors, and a distinct sense of unreality as we grapple with Russia’s annexation as an unyielding smoke screen of Kremlin-led misinformation.

Loznitsa’s visceral, bitter contempt for Russia is a thread that runs through all his fiction features, which tend toward ruthlessly cynical satire (My Joy [2010] and A Gentle Creature [2017] both sprawl across epic nightmare-scapes suggesting the gigantic nation as a defiled, crime-ridden dystopia). They pinpoint a moral rot originating from corruption high up that has imbedded itself so deep in all facets of society that any human impulses toward kindness have long died. His documentaries are more works of precise, observational rigour. That’s not to say they don’t also wear their strong viewpoints on their sleeve – Maidan (2014), its eye trained on the protracted, bloody Ukrainian revolution as it unfolded in Kyiv’s main square, made no secret of his sympathies for those overthrowing pro-Russian Yanukovych. This degree of antipathy from Loznitsa (who was born in what’s now Belarus and raised in Ukraine) is far from unusual for citizens of countries that have grappled with the realities of Russian domination. Is it Loznitsa’s free prerogative to speak with the full force of his disgust? Undoubtedly – though we could argue his is the kind of rigid partisanship that with its lack of nuance and tendency toward caricature tends to reinforce prejudice, not seek human commonalities that can bridge divides.

Donbass uses actors but differs from his other fiction in its more direct relationship to real (but already mediated) events, as it reproduces true-life occurrences as seen in news footage or uploaded to YouTube. It is couched as an unmasking of the existing untruth of Russian propaganda – a kind of “making of” of the lies that control minds. Episodes depict the construction of fake news supporting the pro-Russian separatist cause. Actors in a makeup trailer are prepped to stage the carnage after a bombing that will be broadcast as real reportage. A German journalist is mocked by Russian soldiers atop a tank who, in keeping with Moscow’s denial of the military might they’ve sent into this “civil war”, pretend to be from elsewhere.

Donbass (Sergei Loznitsa, 2018)

In such a zone of surreal, manipulated reality, it only follows that the ability to interpret situations with rational measure – or even to care about trying – has eroded, and the tribal loyalties of war have doubled down. In perhaps the most harrowing scene of all, unbearable in its gradual mood shift and escalation, a man is tied to a pole with a sign announcing him to passersby as a pro-Ukrainian mercenary killer. Its intricate weave of interaction – first jocular, later vicious – is a lesson not only in how mobs function, but how traumatic experiences and attitudes passed down through generations move virally and boil up again with little need of prodding, let alone the influence of a mass apparatus of misinformation intent on rallying devout followers.

Hostility through naming, whereby labels seek to condemn through historical association, ideologically charges the dialogue. World War II accusations of allegiance return to the fore (the alignment of today’s Ukrainian nationalists with the wrongs of German fascists supported by Stepan Bandera is a constant in the derogatory labels applied by the Russian separatists). The potency of language as a weapon signalling and inscribing power could not have come across more starkly than in this Black Sea port city, the name of which (now Odesa, but previously Odessa), the state has “decommunised” by dropping the extra “s” given by the Russian tsars. Collective memory and reality itself, here, are trophies sought claim over by warring definitions.

Their Own Republic (Aliona Polunina, 2018)

Their Own Republic at Doclisboa

While Loznitsa made Donbass in answer to a perceived dominance of Russian propaganda in the information war over Crimea, Doclisboa’s decision to host the world premiere of Aliona Polunina’s Their Own Republic could be regarded in part as another form of redress – a move to counter the echo-chamber tendency of safer festival programming by opening its screens and debate forums up to less prevalent or socially condoned views.

Most of the films about the war in Donbass that have done the festival rounds in recent years (from Loznitsa’s Maidan – which opened Doclisboa in 2014 – to Evgeny Afineevsky’s 2015 Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom) have been preaching to the converted, in the sense of presenting a heavily pro-Ukraine perspective to predominantly sympathetic, western-leaning audiences. Their Own Republic by contrast takes us into the day-to-day life of a pro-Russian battalion in the city of Yasynuvata, a Donetsk hotspot controlled by the separatists. This felt, at least for a cloistered festival audience, like something new – even if the film would ideally have offered sharper insights.

Loznitsa with Donbass plunged us into an almost hallucinatory madhouse of simulation, but Polunina in stark contrast operates in the normalising realm of the banal. While a certain fascination with the machismo of the troop’s activities (weapon-cleaning, and troop inspections) is palpable, hers is far from a work of ardent glorification. There are just as many instances of wry humour arising from the men’s frailties, such as when one soldier deserts while drunk and only eventually gives up hiding. This shows up the absurdity and confusion of war but also, however, humanises the men she is living with, while their Ukrainian enemies are perceived only via the dull boom of artillery fire. It’s a well-documented phenomenon that reporters embedded with troops become increasingly sympathetic to those spoon-feeding them their perspective, buffering them from interaction with civilians, and being trusted to literally keep them alive – and there is a problematic element of that to this film. What Polunina shares with Loznitsa is bias.

But, while Loznitsa gave us a dog-eat-dog space hellscape almost ideologically over-charged with his seething moral indictment of Russia, Polunina does the opposite, under-reading her environment with an unobtrusively observational approach. This not only effaces her directorial hand in what we see, but takes the troops’ presence at face value, accepting the concrete universe they inhabit as it is and never seeming to wonder if it should be any other way – or they should be gone. A blithe depoliticisation of the context of separatist occupation, in other words.

Their Own Republic (Aliona Polunina, 2018)

The emphasis on physical labour – men chopping wood, stacking bricks, tending farm animals – keeps us squarely in the realm of material subsistence and a rugged, working-man mentality. Life is logistics and not much more in this vision of soldiers in their daily grind. Polunina’s is an anti-intellectual exercise that would appear to express solidarity with the common human but in fact is too close in to see the wood for the trees; to question the values that existence is predicated upon. A small portrait of Putin on the wall, unremarked upon, is the only reference to a horizon of beliefs outside army protocols. If the entire universe of Donbass as presented by Loznitsa is fake news with no accessible core of pure truth, that of Polunina is a space bled of information politics; an entrenched partisanship almost total in never suspecting it is just one possible story. For Polunina, it’s as if we are there; for Loznitsa the problem is that cinema is always second-hand and we never can be.

Humans do tend to take their contexts for granted, and cannot be fully blamed for the lottery of identity – should be really, then, expect Polunina and her soldiers to think themselves out of being Russian? On the other hand, a default to social “norms” is no excuse for a filmmaker, whose job it is to make visible not just how one tribe lives, but why – especially in fraught times of war. At the end of the day, the film feels cursory; the work of someone without a mature position on what is at stake.

The question of context and to what extent what a fim pointedly excludes is also, in a sense, part of it took on tense import in Doclisboa. The inclusion of Their Own Republic in the program came mired in controversy. The Ukrainian embassy in Lisbon had pressured the festival to pull the film from its line-up, arguing it did not reflect the international community’s condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Doclisboa not only resisted this external interference, but made a public statement explaining their commitment to being a “territory of discussion and not censorship”. On the night of the premiere, around half a dozen activists from Portugal’s Ukrainian community turned up to protest, handing out fliers headed “Doclisboa supports terrorism!” They admitted to not having yet seen the film, but condemned it as Russian propaganda and disputed the validity of the term “civil war” used in the trailer. Afterwards, they brought their vocal objections to the annexation in general to a bitterly heated Q&A.

A verbal tussle started over the line of discussion: would it revolve around political accusations not addressed in the film at all (was Polunina aware of war crimes committed against civilians by pro-Russian forces in the Donbass region?), or would tension-defusing questions on technical aspects prevail as a way not to derail the conversation from cinema entirely? If editing can sometimes be an act of violent erasure, then maybe the very core of a film is also what it obfuscates and leaves out. Or maybe in talking it upon ourselves to define what is missing, we are rewriting someone else’s voice with our own obsessions. Though her current film did receive backing from the Russian state, Polunina’s track record of independent projects does not lend to thinking of her as a tunnel-visioned propagandist (her feature The Revolution That Wasn’t [2008], awarded in numerous festivals including Ukraine’s Docudays, followed members of a banned Russian party for a year). On the night, attacked and on the defensive, she was only too happy to extol her support for the Russian side in the conflict, and love of the troops. The nature of context, then, like the status of reality of a film, might be just an opinion, ambiguous and mercurial. But even opinions can produce great passion, we were reminded.

Odesa International Film Festival
13-21 July 2018
Festival website: https://oiff.com.ua/en

Doclisboa
18-28 October 2018
Festival website: https://www.doclisboa.org/2018/en/