I also saw two opening films myself: Birds of Passage, by the filmmakers of Embrace of the Serpent, launching the 50th Directors’ Fortnight, and Donbass, which opened the official selection’s Un Certain Regard. One of these feels an obvious opener, yet proved self-conflicted; the other is quite a provocative choice, and all the better for it.
Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, the Colombian filmmakers of Birds of Passage, have chosen an ambitious but deliberately middle-lane approach for their tale of the emergence of the marijuana trade in rural Colombia in the 1960s and ‘70s. The film hedges itself between the genre cinema of rags-to-riches crime sagas familiar to film-goers since Howard Hawks’ Scarface, and the art cinema that explories traditional customs withering before the force of modernity. These two approaches meet in the Guajira region of Colombia, where a young man of the Wayuu Indian tribe, seeking to court a bride from his own culture, expands his business to selling weed to the gringos. The wealth this trade involving both the Colombians and the whites wins him his woman, but begins a decade-long progress of first enriching and then gradually eroding the customs and values of his people. (Whether these traditions, which mix old school patriarchal structures and commanding matriarchy, were in fact worth preserving or not is a question the film does not pursue.)
Gallego and Guerra, shooting handsomely in widescreen 35mm, tell this true story in the spartan manner of a myth or folklore, suggested by bookending songs sung by a blind man warning us of the danger of not listening to the messages of dreams and of the dead. This approach tends to use story as checklist plotting to illustrate consequences for decisions taken, rather than as waypoints structuring an exploration of the world—which might have been a fitting method if the film wasn’t so bold in its canvas. Birds of Passage fails to satisfyingly develop its ideas on either side of the drug trafficking: We only get passing references to American anti-communism and perhaps government involvement in the early days of the trade, which, in the film, so meticulously corrupts the Indian country; and likewise this Wayuu culture and society, relying on familiar rituals and traditions, is vividly evoked but rarely developed. The result is a film whose subject may be true, but whose thrust seems allegorical, and an allegory whose impact is significantly dampened by the admirable scope of the picture, which thereby fails to fully integrate two kinds of stories told, one of ambitions and one of traditions.
Sergei Loznitsa’s last film in Cannes, 2017’s A Gentle Creature, was a trying lesson in taking to an extreme the kind of singular commitment Birds of Passage lacks, telling as it does of the reality of the Kafkaseque bureaucracy of the Russian prison system, which serves as a larger allegory for the Russian state. After early this year premiering Victory Day, a documentary filming Russians in Berlin celebrating the date of their country’s triumph over the Third Reich, the prodigious Belarusian-born, Kiev-raised director has returned to Ukraine, the subject of Maidan, another one of his fresco-like documentaries of political gatherings, to make the ostensibly fictional portmanteau Donbass.
The Ukraine he finds is one quite different from the landscape seen in the hope of protesting crowds of that 2014 film. Donbass abandons allegory for a bracing commitment to the present in a film that has such topical urgency one wonders why (or whether) it is fiction at all. Its story is a daisy-chain loosely connecting anecdotes of corruption, coercion, fear, and cynicism in the Donbass region of the country, which is currently occupied by the pro-Russian separatists who have proclaimed the Donetsk People's Republic. Opening with a scene of actors preparing to film what we soon shockingly learn is a fake news report of Ukrainian nationalist terrorism, and going on from there—a local mobster covers up the pilfering of hospital supplies in a glorious performance of false outrage, an SUV is requisitioned from a Russian loyalist, who is subsequently blackmailed for more money, and a man labeled as a volunteer in a Ukrainian death squad is chained to a public lamp post to be heckled and beaten—Donbass is a grave, sometimes blackly, absurdly comic transmission from a region roiling in intimate bloodshed and hatred.
Despite his use of long takes, Loznitsa in this new film avoids being overly showy in either technique or dramatic audacity, preferring an off-hand and aggregating collection of minor incidents that suggest a desire to capture the present in its horrible regularity rather than demonstrative or exceptional horror. The most extreme gesture the film has at its disposal—aside from making a fiction film rather than a documentary—is to hold scenes, such as the beating of the “exterminator” and, immediately following, a satiric Donetsk wedding, to the point of exhaustion. “Tell me the truth, who hired you?” screams a woman at the captured “volunteer,” continuing a theme throughout Donbass—and in fact bookending the film in what seems a suggestion of cyclical war but then reveals a far more sinister conclusion—of actors, performances, journalism, filming, and fiction. Just how much of the basis of this conflict is fictive, Donbass asks, not just in details of fake news but in a greater sense of people playing roles to obtain and maintain power? This suggestion, and the film itself, comes as if from the front lines, which creates an ambivalent contradiction between Loznitsa’s bracingly of-the-moment “reporting” and his film’s tone of resigned weariness. A film at once electric and morose, Donbass serves as a guide to the malignant darkness shrouding over the eastern part of the Ukraine: fiction filmmaking with combative intent and a powerful sense of necessity.
This is the kind of film this festival should embrace, one which attacks the distress of the present with a virtuosic anger and desire to communicate experience. We can only hope more films here in Cannes achieve such vitality.