“Donbass” opens at a press conference that’s immediately halted after a furious onlooker (Olesya Zhurakovskaya) dumps a bucket of feces on a speaking journalist. The woman holding the bucket then gets into an extensive back-and-forth with a representative of her victim’s newspaper, but their conversation only reflects these two characters’ equally righteous and entrenched points-of-view. The bucket lady did what she did because, while she doesn’t know the journalist that she attacked, she has already been victimized by his reporting (either she and/or her husband took bribes?). And his newspaper, represented by the pissed-off on-looker, doesn’t really care about this woman’s hurt feelings: “Why listen to her? [the bucket lady] She’s just putting on a show!” But the show goes on, because it’s more of a trainwreck than a planned spectacle: “If the police and the courts failed, I’ll defend my honor myself.” The two women continue to talk past each other.
Later on, people die in “Donbass” with just as much grace and narrative context. A massacre leaves at least a dozen dead—a film crew is randomly gunned down by separatists—but it’s presented as an event because of what follows the killing: the police show up, the media sets up, and the murders are covered in a way that distorts the anticlimactic and (according to Loznitsa) mundane nature of violence in this occupied territory. The reporters at the scene tell us that “a terrible crime has been committed last night,” and it’s interrupted the making of a film about “the peaceful lives of the people of Donbass.” The succeeding news segment is bad theater, defined as it is by Loznitsa’s blood-draining establishing shot and miserable dialogue exchanges like “Guys, you come when I say ‘start’!” and “Have you got it?” “Yes, but let’s do a wide shot.”
Nobody gets what they need or can be heard for what they’re saying in this traumatized milieu. Vital supplies are hoarded and/or dispensed by thugs and politicians, like the seedy organizer (Boris Kamorzin) who gathers a hospital’s staff in the maternity ward and gives them a rambling lecture about their supplies. The hospital is well stocked enough, according to Kamorzin’s mini-mogul, but who this guy is and why he’s giving a speech doesn’t seem to matter. Instead, we hear his bullying rhetoric and see how it’s received by a weary captive audience.