‘The only thing I can wish you – don’t be afraid!’ – this was Oleg Sentsov’s final statement. Sentsov was arrested in Crimea by Russian security services in early 2014 on suspicion of ‘plotting terrorist acts’; three months later he was sentenced by a Russian court to 20 years in prison. A cast of European directors co-signed a letter from the European Film Academy to the Russian authorities, demanding that charges against Sentsov be dropped and allegations of torture investigated.
The search for justice, and the system entrusted with finding it fascinates us all. Netflix’s Making a Murderer series, for one, secured the scepticism of nations. Seemingly one of the best ways to expose and explore blurred legal lines is through the format of film, chiefly the documentary format. And that is exactly what Russian director, Askold Kurov, sought to do through his work.
Anastasia Kalita: Tell us about your documentary? When and how did you decide to shoot a film about Oleg Sentsov?
Askold Kurov: I happened to know Oleg personally. When he was arrested I went to the first hearings in Moscow to support him in some way. Then I realised that the one thing I could do for him was to shoot a documentary film. I had to tell everybody exactly how everything happened. When I came to Kyiv, I found out that Ukrainian director Andrii Lytvynenko was also doing a documentary project about Sentsov. We met and decided to do this film together.
AKA: What does your film actually consist of?
AKU: Actually, what we have now is mainly court sessions in Moscow and Rostov; also meetings with Sentsov’s friends and relatives in Crimea. Our material is very diverse.
AKA: During your lecture ‘(NO) Political Cinema’ at DocuDays (Ukrainian festival of documentary films), you said that “it’s much better to do a film when you have questions, not answers”. What question are you asking in this film?
AKU: This is a question that has been bothering me for a long time. I have played in a Moscow theatre called ‘theatre.doc’ that only puts up documentary pieces. We had a performance about Sergei Magnitsky, who also rebelled against a corrupt system, and was eventually killed in prison. Just then a question arose – what can I do not to break down under such circumstances? I tried to imagine myself in the position of a man who was being kept in jail under threats of torture…
AKA: Were there moments of despair, when you wanted to give it all up?
AKU: I didn’t want to give up. The strongest moment of despair was on the day of verdict. It’s a strange story, because everyone understands that everything is settled and this court was a kind of theatre. Apparently, that’s the way the world works so I have hope. Hope is the last thing to die. When I walked out of the court I wanted to breakdown into tears. I could see that everybody was in a similar condition. That was the most horrible moment for me.
AKA: So you decided to shoot this film with Oleg's family, friends and colleagues. How quickly did you manage to make contact with them?
AKU: Everything happened so fast. At first we felt some discomfort, but these things pass very quickly. We got so close; we knew we were one big team. The shooting process came as something very natural, as part of the job.
AKA: Who would you say your documentary is for?
AKU: I want to make a movie that will appeal to people in the broadest sense of the word. The audience is not only Russia and Ukraine, but also the whole world. This movie is not just about Oleg, I also want to help other political prisoners.
AKA: Do you think Vladimir Putin watches your movies?
AKU: I doubt it (smiles). We had a movie Zima ukhodi!, which I shot as a part of a director's group of ten people. That movie is about civil protests in Russia, before Putin was reelected in 2012; the biggest wave of protests over the last 20 years. And it was a pretty loud movie. Perhaps he saw it? The shooting process is now finished and the start date of the movie is towards the end of April 2016.
Words: Anastasia Kalita
Images source: Getty Images / Docudays UA International