THE CACOPHONY OF DONBAS – From Symphony to Cacophony

Found-footage films have a very specific place in the history of cinema. Using pre-existent material in order to articulate a discourse about the present by referring to the past is as much paradoxical as it (still) is iconoclastic. Igor Minaiev introduces the public to the idea of found footage even from the title – he “found” Dziga Vertov’s ENTHUSIASM: SYMPHONY OF THE DONBAS (1931) and by connecting it to recent events turned it into THE CACOPHONY OF DONBAS. The reasoning behind this title comes in clear focus since the beginning with the apparently omniscient voice-over, deployed as a deconstruction of the Soviet propaganda between the 1930s and the 1990s.

August 31st, 1935: Alexey Stakhanov, a miner who would become a national hero during the propaganda process imposed by the Soviet authorities in order to create a fake public image of the superiority of the socialist worker (the so-called “Stakhanovite movement”), breaks a world record by mining 102 tons in one shift. In the Soviet newsreels it is said that a miner’s salary is between 1500 and 7000 rubles per month, enough for a miner and his family to build a stable life in the USSR. When the miners’ problem with alcohol becomes public, the authorities declare everything under medical control. Minaiev disassembles old myths, propagandistic information and legends by contrasting them with the miners’ strikes from the 1990s. The record behind Alexey Stakhanov was made up, and so was the entire promoting apparatus of the Soviet miner and he eventually would die because of an alcohol-related illness – a series of vox-populi interviews with the miners who took part in the 1990s strikes under the Gorbachev regime show an angry, disappointed and fed-up category of the working class.

Sequences of newsreels, propaganda films, interviews and music videos are pieced together to highlight a certain discrepancy between the propagandistic discourse and the truth. And it’s not only the dramatic conclusions of his essay-like argumentation that is being highlighted by the compilation, but a certain type of humor betraying the ridiculousness of these materials to the contemporary public. The director eventually touches upon the subject of Donbas of the XXI century, but only after a transition between the brief intro to the dollhouse construction of Soviet propaganda and the appearance of more recent footage, namely an interview with the Ukrainian artist Arsen Savadov on his Donbass Chocolate project from 1997. What remains to be said about this considerably larger part of the film is that, even if the voice-over discourse moulds on the semi-academic essay and even if its strongest point is the usage of audio-visual material, Minaiev never actually brings up a source to empower his argument, and never shows any relevant audio-visual proofs that would 100% sustain his counter-propaganda observations.

The actual footage of the recent events from Donbas features interviews with two Ukrainian victims of the Russian separatists and home-movie type footage which presents a couple who organize their wedding as an ode to militarism. Minaiev never draws a socio-political conclusion but more of a romantic one regarding how much hate there is between people and peoples. Nevertheless, the thesis behind the usage of found-footage becomes apparent – after deconstructing and demolishing the roots of Donbas in Russian history, the events from 2014 suddenly seem pointless and unjustifiable, especially when the human element offered by the two Ukrainians is firmly established as the starting point in depicting the horrors of war.

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