The Donetsk People’s Republic, Or The Curious Tale of the Handmade Country and Crepuscule at FrontLine Club, London

Anthony Butts documentary, The Donetsk People’s Republic, Or The Curious Tale of the Handmade Country charts the rise and progression of the DPR (a group of differing militias determined to break off from Kiev and its ‘fascist’ police style state) it’s take over of Donetsk, manipulated, some believe, by the Kremlin, it’s then disbandment but then with the sudden Russian backing, its rise again.

The Oligarchs rule is the disgusted claim from one separatist . 

Nothing much has changed, cites another, just the people in power. 

‘I’ve been in pro Russian parties for years, where’s my seat?’ asks a woman when the DPR claim control of Donetsk and appointed themselves as ministers in the government.

But time moves quickly and the city is not even the same city that Butt captured last year.

Donetsk is now a separatist city. There’s no mention of ethnic hostilities in Butt’s film- but now the city is a ghost town, ruled by young men and  women khaki clad and a law to themselves. And this is part of the DPR’s constitution: “bans abortion, criminalises homosexuality, enshrines the Russian Orthodox Church as the state religion, guarantees protection of private property, and defines the DPR as part of “the Russian World, on the basis of its traditional religious, social, cultural and moral values.” 

 If there was a feeling of suppressed violence in the film- violence towards women, women against women, vague threats, men wielding guns as carefree as a child trailing a stick, homophobia, language that turns the air blue, it is even more lawless now. 

But Anthony Butts film, captures a sense of what is to come. One late scene shows ‘Lenin’ a self styled unemployed militia man, confront his long term 20 years friend Vladimir, who used to keep dogs, now a self appointed minister in the government.  A security chief is threatened and moves to Crimea. One of the militia is murdered. Another strikes it rich- and buys a car. 

It’s clear in the film what is to come- that the DPR will end up fighting Kiev and its own men, in an effort to keep law and order. Meanwhile now, Donetsk’s population has fallen by half. Perhaps all those men and women, coerced by Russian propaganda and Soviet anthems who stood on the barricades and watched the militia take over official buildings a year ago, the same ones who screamed for blood when protesters in Ukraine’s southeast were burned alive by neo nazis and some believe, US linked groups, the same ones who argued with pro Ukrainians in the parks, the same ones who left families to go and join separatists everywhere- perhaps they are the ones who have left.

Now it seems, as prophesied in the film, that Donetsk has become as fascist as the regime it was trying to separate itself from.  As has already been commented, and although the film is not about taking sides but merely charts the break down of a break down, those who were revolutionaries were just doing it to get power for themselves.

Watching the skype link with a journalist in Donetsk, it was hard to believe that behind him the sun shone over such lawlessness. It’s a time bomb waiting to go off. Even as he spoke reports came in of two Russian soldiers being captured by Kiev forces. So far the conflict between Ukraine and the pro Russian forces has killed more than 6,200 people.

By contrast, there was a UK premiere of Crepuscule by Valentyn Vasyanovych. It is a documentary and charts the lives of a mother and son living on a small farm in a remote part of Ukraine.  

It is beautiful but entirely expected. There is something to be expected of Eastern European films, whether documentary or fiction and that is that they must have a certain sort romantic interest in a fairytale kind of decay. It is present in Tarkovsky’s work, it is there in Come and See (Elem Klimov) in All My Good Country Men (Vojtech Jasný) etc. What is it? Sentiment? Whatever it is, it is beautiful but whereas as a child I was enticed by it now as an adult, I am more wary. Yes there is beauty in poetic loneliness, in light reflected in a jug, in the profile of an old woman trying to sing, a man shaving in a bare room, but it is too much of a stylistic device which seems empty of meaning, unlike in Tarkovsky’s films. It’s what we expect now and it’s what we get.

We even have it with Gideon Koppel’s remarkable film Sleep Furiously. 

The son and the mother in this film are sympathetic. The son, in his 60s, is blind and ill and barely to work on the farm. We cringe when we see him attempt to drill a hole, or teach his old mother how to build something, because he cannot. We see what we think is the emptiness of their lives. The lack of help and support from the community- the elderly woman can barely pull a wheel barrow. But in the Q&A afterwards the film maker admitted that some parts of the film- the mother’s interaction with her local church, a huge part of her life- had been left out. And that other parts were a little more contrived. 

Although the film’s participants were the film makers relatives and although the piece serves as a beautiful testimony to what we were told is the decline of the elderly in such communities (both have since died and recently) it’s contrivance is a little worrying. What of the church community? What of the less helpful relatives who sold the farm? What remains of the village, of the neighbours that gained the farm’s small bit of land?

There are elements of truth in the film. One longs for more moments like this, and to see more of the support systems the two so obviously had in place in order for a little more authenticity. 

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