On May 11, officers from Russia’s Federal Security Bureau arrived at the Crimea home of movie director Oleg Sentsov, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Though Sentsov was known for his opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and had aided Ukrainian soldiers in their ill-fated battle for the peninsula, he had also not been known as an especially political filmmaker. His previous features, “Gaamer” and “Rhino,” were genre-tinged stories about outcasts with little explicit political content.
But the security forces believed otherwise. They arrested Sentsov and transferred him to an undisclosed prison, likely in Moscow. After holding him without charges for three weeks — family and friends say they didn’t hear from him over this time — Russian authorities announced that Sentsov was being charged with bombing two World War II monuments and setting fire to several buildings, a charge of “terrorism” that carries with it a maximum sentence of 20 years.
Last week he was denied bail, essentially meaning he would remain in a Russian prison at least until an October trial — and possibly much longer.
Sentsov’s case brings into uncomfortable focus what happens when filmmakers and other artists are caught up in a political movement, despite and at times even because they hold a higher profile than average citizens. The incident is hardly the only painful one for artists in Ukraine. Earlier this year, Serhiy Zhadan, the country’s most famous counterculture writer, was beaten in protests by presumed pro-Kremlin insurgents in the Russia-adjacent city of Kharkiv. “Friends, with me everything is okay,” he wrote on Facebook, though it was clear from some graphic photos that it was not.
On Tuesday night in Odessa, the Black Sea port town where Sentsov’s imprisonment has become a cause celebre, Sentsov’s producing partner and other professional collaborators screened “Gaamer” as part of a fundraiser at the Odessa Film Festival. Proceeds from ticket sales — about 500 in all — were earmarked for his legal defense fund and his family.
“They’re accusing him of terrorism, but everyone who knows Oleg in person or his films will know he’s not only unsuitable but that it’s absurd to accuse him and friends of this,” said Olga Zhurzhenko, who produced “Gaamer.” She added that the director will “not ever surrender to Russian pressure.”
She then screened the film, a 2011 drama about a young man of modest means who hopes to find a way out of his impoverished circumstance by winning a Quake tournament.
In a situation like this, every little bit matters, but given the weak Ukrainian economy, what amounted to a few hundred dollars in movie ticket revenue won’t make or break Sentsov’s case. Still, several audience members yelled out “Spasiba!” (thank you) after the film was shown, and dozens lined up to sign petitions afterward, demonstrating the kind of grass-roots interest that has put pressure on leaders and other figures.
Newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko last week expressed concern about the jailing of Sentsov and Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, who is also being held under hazy circumstances. A bevy of European film directors, meanwhile, including Wim Wenders and Mike Leigh, have signed their own letter demanding Sentsov’s release.
On Wednesday, Viktorya Tigipko, the president of the Odessa Film Festival, whose husband is a former vice minister in the Ukrainian government, told The Times that she believed this was a sham that can and should come to an end soon.
“It’s a totally crazy situation. It’s very clear they’re making him a showcase,” she said. “We’re doing everything possible to bring him home.”
(As his lawyers make a bid to see evidence and documents they claim are being withheld, Sentsov himself was able to make a speech from prison several weeks ago. Needless to say, he denied all charges and said he was not a serf who could be “transferred from one landowner to another together with the land,” an allusion to both his imprisonment and the Crimea annexation.)
High-profile protests that increase negative PR can have an effect in situations like this, as the music world learned when Russia released several members of the music group Pussy Riot before the Sochi Olympics, though of course not before a long prison sentence was served. In Iran, director Jafar Panahi, accused of spreading anti-government propaganda, remains under a filmmaking and film publicity ban that he has only gently begun to test; some, however, believe that his situation would be much worse if he weren’t as famous.
At an early moment in “Gaamer,” the main character, a young man named Koss, listens as a friend in their hardscrabble Ukrainian town tells him it’s impossible to attain greatness “in this hole.”
Koss replies, “Even a hole has a light at the end of it.” Sentsov and his supporters can only hope they see it soon.