In 2015 when Ukrainian, Crimean patriot Oleg Sentsov was convicted of trumped-up terrorist crimes he didn’t commit, the Moscow district court was told he’s not afraid of the twenty year sentence – ‘the rule of blood thirsty dwarves in your country will end sooner’.
Askold Kurov’s documentary frames the progress of Sentsov’s trial in the wider context of Putin’s Russia and the illegal annexation of Crimea, as well as telling the human story of thirty-seven-year-old Sentsov’s imprisonment and separation from his family.
The film opens with him entering a cage in the court, overwhelmed by media cameras. Sentsov’s lawyer states that there’s no evidence. A search of Sentsov’s home revealed nothing. He’s tortured and after refusing to name others is told he’d be named as the chief suspect. Two witnesses, caught on CCTV amateurishly trying to torch buildings, cite Sentsov as the ring leader.
His cousin Nataly Kaplan talks to the camera about the trumped-up charges and the political motivation behind them, while at home his wife sorts out foodstuff to bring to the prison. Her forbearance is extraordinary as she’s dealing with the provocation of prison officials who return a food parcel insisting on re-labelling the ‘loose nuts’ – there’s no such thing. His daughter’s tearfully talking to her father on a mobile phone while being comforted by her grandmother.
Sentsov’s a well-known film director and he’s shown working on the set of his film Gamer (2011). There’s messages of support from his fellow film directors including Wim Wenders, Agnieszka Holland, and Krystoff Zanussi. Commentator Kirill Ragov explains that trials like Sentsov’s are indicative of ‘a regime showing its strength’ with the imprisonment of well-known figures. The very absurdity of the charges sends a message to elites and activists alike.
Magically, another search of Senstov’s home uncovers a cache of weapons, but there’s a reverse for the FSB. A young man’s picked up, the police demand he testifies against the others and confesses to blowing up two monuments. In court he refutes his earlier statements – they were obtained by torture, with electrical wires held to his testicles. In a heart-warming moment Sentsov praises the young man for ‘overcoming his fear, a courageous step and he’ll now be able to live the rest of his life without giving into fear’.
Olesya Khromeychuk (Kings College London) in the panel discussion strikes at the heart of the human experience in her exploration of Sentsov as Icon or man. He’s a father, son and writer who continues to write from his cell, co-directing a new film, Numbers, and writing a book. He’s become a symbol for our times as anyone could be plucked from the streets at the wrong time. Sentsov shows that in such circumstances, an ordinary person can remain humane in inhumane circumstances and retain a sense of dignity.
‘Crimeanesia’ suggests that the annexation of Crimea is ‘done and dusted’ says Rory Finnin (Cambridge University). Sentsov, along with others, is tragic proof that this is not the case. Reports indicate that Sentsov has been offered release but refuses unless all political prisoners are released –a total of 100 incarcerated in Russia. Finnin argues that this is illustrative of the long-standing struggle about Crimea, citing the deportation of the Tartars and other Crimean groups by Stalin in 1942. More recently, journalists involved in Crimean solidarity have been arrested in their homes – all accused of Islamic extremism.
Josie Von Zitzewitz (Cambridge University) compares the repression of Putin’s Russia with the former Soviet Union and suggests there’s something new: Crimean dissidents are less easily identified as they’re charged with criminal offences – terrorism, hate speech and, in some cases, even child pornography. This is ingenious as, even if the dissident is acquitted, a shadow remains.
The Cold War’s over and the picture’s become blurred – it’s much harder now to show solidarity. Zitzewitz like Finnin argues, however, that publicity still remains important: it doesn’t allow people to be disappeared.
The ‘Theatre of Displaced people’ since 2015 has been working with soldiers, teenagers and activists to tell their own stories of the war. Molly Flynn (Birkbeck College) outlined a 2018 project bringing teenagers from East and West Ukraine together in drama workshops. All differences were soon forgotten in the forging of ten minute plays, which were performed by famous actors.
In a final moment of solidarity, the audience enthusiastically held up names of political prisoners for a publicity photo call. The Documentary, the contribution of the panel was informative as much as it was inspirational.
A letter writing campaign has been organised to support political prisoners. For step by step instructions as well as the prisoners’ names and addresses please go to:
A podcast of the Panel discussion: https://soundcloud.com/birkbeck-podcasts/the-trial-the-state-of-russia-vs-oleg-sentsov