Russia and Ukraine have long been the subject of this filmmaker

The scenes of German and Soviet soldiers invading Ukraine in Sergei Loznitsa’s Babi Yar: Context are inevitably reminiscent of the current Russian invasion of the country. For more than two decades, Loznitsa, a Ukrainian filmmaker who grew up in the Soviet Union, has chronicled the past and present in Ukraine and Russia, revisiting historical events and depicting daily life in the grips of war and empire.

“Babi Yar: Context,” a documentary that opens Friday at Film Forum, recreates WWII Ukraine through vivid archival footage of Kyiv, where Nazis murdered thousands of Jews in a single location, the film’s title gorge. In fictional satire “Donbass”, Losnitsa, which opens April 8, recreates bizarre and disturbing episodes of Russian incursions into eastern Ukraine in the 2010s.

Loznitsa, 57, recently made headlines when he left the European Film Academy over a statement by the group on the Russian invasion, which he considered “toothless”; then he returned to the headlines after being expelled from the Ukrainian film academy for speaking out against boycotts of Russian filmmakers. Even President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy chimed in during an interview with Russian journalists on March 27, saying about Loznitsa: “He is an artist who supports Ukraine.”

Loznitsa sees the conflict as “a European war, not just a Ukrainian war.” In Russian, with his producing partner Maria Choustova-Baker acting as an interpreter, he spoke about his films and current events during a video chat from Berlin, where he lives. These are excerpts from our conversation.

Where were you when the Russian invasion began?

Vilnius. I’m finishing a new movie there. I was woken up by a text message from my friend, Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky. It said, “Forgive me. What a nightmare.”

Is it true that you helped your parents flee Ukraine?

Unlike many others, I actually believed what US intelligence was reporting and what President Biden was telling the world [that Russia had planned to invade]. I even guessed the dates correctly. My friend, Ukrainian co-producer Serge Lavrenyuk, helped me remove my parents [from Kyiv, three days before the invasion started]. This war is an enormous shock to millions of people. My father was born in 1939 and remembers his childhood and those horrors very well. My mother was born in 1940 and also remembers the many movements during the war. Now they are [in their 80s] and it’s the same circumstances!

How would you compare the situation now to the story in Babi Yar: Context?

The fundamental difference is that at that time it was a struggle between two totalitarian regimes. Now there is a totalitarian regime fighting with a country striving for independence. At that time, the big countries like the USA and Great Britain also took part in the war. But today, the majority of countries that have the potential to stop this war have chosen this immoral position of bystander, non-interference. And the politicians of these countries have put their citizens in this situation of immorality, because the citizens’ only choice is to watch online in real time as one city after another is being destroyed in Ukraine.

One could say that Putin is winning internationally at the moment because the policies of world leaders are based on fear. They are unable even to take a more neutral step and impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

Some fear such involvement would lead to escalation and nuclear conflict.

I don’t think it’s a valid excuse. First, do these politicians have any guarantee that they will not use nuclear weapons if, heaven forbid, Russia manages to engulf Ukraine? Putin had no valid reason for invading Ukraine. Why do you think he needs a valid reason to use nuclear weapons? This can only be stopped by force. Sooner or later NATO will have to intervene, and the longer it waits, the bloodier the resolution of the conflict will be.

Babi Yar: Context is not afraid to address the role of the people of Ukraine in the massacre of Jews. Have you received any criticism in this regard?

There were people in Ukraine who criticized me for making this film the way I made it. The current situation is completely different. And it is absolutely obvious that everything that Putin is talking about, that there are Nazis in Ukraine, was all nonsense. At the same time, this question of cooperation in history in Ukraine is very, very painful. Yes, I was heavily criticized.

Do you have relatives who were affected by the Babi Yar murders?


In “Donbass” you take a different approach: you stage events using real mobile phone videos. Why this form?

Firstly because I was intrigued by these amateur videos I found on the internet. Second, I wanted to create this grotesque shape because I needed something to hold the film together, and I didn’t want to use just one protagonist or group of protagonists. I wanted you to watch idiocy in all its forms. This wonderful film by Luis Buñuel, “The Phantom of Freedom” also uses this method.

One of the scenes shows Russians moving artillery from place to place after firing at a civilian bus.

Yes, the most important thing for her was not to be identified. Therefore, they had to move from one place to another. And the subsequent killing [in the film] because they wanted to get rid of the witnesses.

That sounds like a mafia movie.

Yes indeed, these criminal gangs that came to power in 1917 and are in power today, there is no difference between them and any other mafia. Before that, the mafia covered itself with Soviet ideology. Today there is no more ideology. It’s only mafia.

“Donbass” also portrays people who are hired to pretend to witness a staged explosion.

Yes, it happens all the time. This is the technique routinely employed by Russian television, and surveillance groups have managed to identify actors playing the role of witnesses in various locations. So they almost have a cast of actors who employ them to produce fake news. Around 2014 there was an infamous TV report: a story about Ukrainians crucifying a Russian boy. This report was analyzed by professionals who proved that every single item was fake and staged.

Growing up in the Soviet Union, was there a point where you became disillusioned?

The fact is that the entire Soviet Union lived in this kind of double reality or multiple realities, and everyone was aware of it, but very few people actually questioned it. But I was a very bad student. [Laughs] I was a very good student when it came to academics, but I always questioned this double reality and asked myself, “Where am I and what’s going on?”

Today this criminal group [in power in Russia] has regrouped. They repaired the country’s economy a little. They upgraded their armed forces. And now they are ready to take on the world again. [Laughs]

Today your films can seem like prophecies because of their familiar images of war.

The problems I talk about in my films have been around for a long time. That’s why I wanted “Mr. Landsbergis” [a new film about Lithuania’s successful bid for independence from the Soviet Union in 1989-91]. Because there is this unique and fantastic and colossal experience of fighting and winning against the Soviet Union.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/01/movies/sergei-loznitsa-russia-ukraine.html Russia and Ukraine have long been the subject of this filmmaker

Isaiah Colbert

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