‘The tyrant can’t destroy the art’

Russia
Human Rights
Ukraine
olegblog.jpg

© Nichon Glerum/IFFR

UPDATE 25 August 2015: Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Russian military court, on charges linking him with terrorist activities in the Crimean peninsula. He denies the charges.

UPDATE 25 August 2015: Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Russian military court, on charges linking him with terrorist activities in the Crimean peninsula. He denies the charges.

Oleg Sentsov always wanted to be a filmmaker. The trouble is that filmmakers also need to be truth-tellers, and truth-telling is a much-frowned-upon activity in today’s Russia.

In May last year, the 38-year old Ukrainian director was arrested in his home in Simferopol, Crimea, by Russian police.

A year later, Sentsov is still awaiting trial.

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), a modern embodiment of the KGB, has accused him of terrorist activities on Russian territory, including plotting attacks on railway bridges, power lines and public monuments in three key Crimean towns – Simferopol, Sevastopol and Yalta.

At the crux of the matter is Crimea itself, a territory disputed by Ukraine and Russia since the 19th century. Ukraine’s political grip weakened after the pro-EU Maidan protests of January 2014. The following month, pro-Russian armed forces took control of Crimea and in March, a ‘referendum’ in the area resulted in 95.5 per cent of voters supporting a union with Russia.

Sentsov, who is of Crimean origin, was actively opposed to Russian annexation. He was a member of AutoMaidan – the automotive wing of the pro-EU Maidan protests – which involved drivers delivering food and supplies in hard-to-reach places.

Andrew Wilson, a Senior Policy Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on Ukrainian politics, says: ‘Sentsov is a political prisoner and hostage. Russia doesn’t want anybody challenging its “project” in Crimea, and many Crimean Tatar activists have been arrested or disappeared. Sentsov is an articulate intellectual who can lay out an attractive vision of why the peninsula ought to belong to Ukraine.’

Sentsov’s case has sparked outrage across the film industry in Europe, with an immediate response from the European Film Academy (EFA), where directors such as Ken Loach and Pedro Almodóvar signed an open letter calling for his release.

This March, the Polish Film Academy organized a protest on behalf of Oleg Sentsov during a ceremony in Warsaw, and with the Cannes Festival underway, the Ukrainian Pavilion will host a petition supporting his release.

Although Russia’s human rights abuses in Crimea are well-documented, Sentsov’s arrest is still shocking.

Mike Downey, Deputy Chairman of the European Film Academy thinks Sentsov’s is a case of ‘right man, wrong place, wrong time. There is a bizarre arbitrariness to the Oleg Sentsov case, and honestly – despite my justification for the ongoing campaign – he will be freed as arbitrarily as he was imprisoned. It is in the nature of rule by despot.’

Agnieszka Holland: ‘We need to feel and express solidarity with our colleagues in different countries, [who are being] persecuted because they are fighting for freedom’

Did the open letter sent by the EFA help in any way?

Downey thinks it has ‘kept the case active in the public eye and made it clear to the FSB and the Russian judicial system (corrupt and unheeding as it is) that Oleg has support from all over the world – and that whatever the outcome of the trial – he will be supported. The case will be brought up again and again, and its injustice will reach a wider and wider audience. Oleg’s lawyers – whose guidance provided outcomes for the Pussy Riot case as well, believe that this is the most effective tool Oleg has.’

The money raised from events supporting Oleg Sentsov will go towards his family and provide resources for his legal backup.

Andrew Wilson thinks ‘any protest from [Sentsov’s] fellow artists is doubly valuable. Putin doesn’t like his empire of myths being undermined, and it helps focus Western attention on the merits of the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar cause. Crimea is not “eternal Russian land”.’

Sentsov is best known for his 2011 debut film Gaamer, about a Ukrainian boy who finds solace in video games. The movie excited interest among the European film community, earning good reviews. His following project, Rhino, was postponed due to the start of the Maidan protests and Sentsov’s involvement in them. .

His trial is being continually postponed and Sentsov faces the propect of up to 20 years in prison on terrorism charges. The FSB has also accused him of being a member of Right Sector, an extremist Ukrainian political party opposed to Russian intervention. Sentsov has denied the claim.

He currently resides in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, a place notorious for its use of torture and abuse. Sentsov himself claims he has been tortured, but his allegations are dismissed by the authorities, according to Amnesty International.

Agnieszka Holland, director and Chair of the EFA, says that support for Sentsov must go on.

‘The drop can destroy the rock,’ she says. ‘It took 10 years of international pressure for [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky; I hope it will go faster for Sentsov. We have to do what we can even if it seems to be hopeless.’

She continues: ‘I have quite a long dissident experience from Poland and Czechoslovakia, before 1989. This kind of visibility has always helped prisoners. But not only them – also ourselves, as an international community of artists and filmmakers. We need to feel and express solidarity with our colleagues in different countries, [who are being] persecuted because they are fighting for freedom.’

‘It was the great Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov who wrote in The Master and Margarita that manuscripts cannot burn. They will remain forever, even when they are destroyed. I don’t believe that a tyrant can destroy artists and art. The most important thing is that Oleg Sentsov believes it as well.’

Documenting Ukraine is a four-day umbrella festival bringing Ukraine’s leading names in documentary cinema and theatre to London, between 14-17 May.

Release Oleg Sentsov is a work-in-progress of Askold Kurov’s documentary about Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, to be screened during the festival.