ARCHIVES Danyliw Seminar 2017
The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov
POLAND 2017 90 min.
directed by Askold Kurov
“Movies cannot change things,
but they can change individuals.”
Transcript of the Q&A with filmmaker Askold Kurov that followed the screening of The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov at the Danyliw Seminar on 16 November 2017. Questions and answers were edited for style by Sophie Foster. A few comments were added in brackets for context.
Born in Uzbekistan in 1974, Askold Kurov has lived in Russia since 1991. He co-directed in 2012 the award-winning documentary Winter, Go Away! His next films Leninland and Children 404 also won critical acclaim and screened at numerous festivals.
Question: Can you tell us more about how this film came to be? What is the origin of this film? Did you know Oleg Sentsov?
Askold Kurov: I met Oleg about three years ago, before he was arrested. Oleg had messaged me on Facebook, wanting to share his new film [Gamer]. I met him in person at his film’s premiere in Moscow. I became interested in this story when I saw how fake the case looked. I was discussing some ideas I had on the subject with a friend when he suggested that I make a documentary. Eventually, I felt that making a documentary would be the only way I could help.
How did you get funding?
I didn’t really have problems getting funding because I was the only cameraman shooting inside the courtrooms. The Russian legal system wanted filming within the courts because they wanted to make sure that the case looked legal and real. The funding aspect of this film took a long time, however, because we couldn’t get funding in Russia or Ukraine. We decided to use international Crowdfunding, where we found a Polish corporate user who got us in contact with Polish, Czech and Estonian film institutes.
Regarding the filmmaking process itself: You remained distant on the tensions within his family. Why have you decided to just mention it rather than thoroughly discuss it?
The story is really complex and it has multiple facets to it. Because Oleg is such a diverse person it was hard to give details on everything. Also, his family situation is a sensitive topic and it’s very hard for him. [His brother-in-law and nephew work for the Crimean FSB and he is estranged from his wife –Editor]
Can you talk about some of the difficulties in filming? What was the reality of filming the trial?
This film was difficult because it was my first [political] documentary. In my previous films I usually just follow characters and observe but in this film it was more than just observation; it included investigation, etc. At some points in the filming process we ended up using hidden cameras because we were not allowed to film. The most difficult part was when you knew that you were being followed. We also knew of instances where our cell phones were being tapped. I sometimes passed through moments of paranoia, where I was afraid all the time and I couldn’t sleep.
Where are we on the negotiations of exchange of the prisoners? Is there a possibility of exchange of the prisoners from Russian prisons? Can this movie help to cause an exchange?
I hope that this movie can help. Unfortunately, Oleg isn’t the only political prisoner; I don’t know the exact number but we’re talking about dozens of them. Many film festivals and even Amnesty International and activists are trying to organize screenings in order to invite politicians. It would be a big surprise if Oleg would be the next to be exchanged because the Russian legal system has its own logic and nobody knows how it works. A month ago we had an update on where Oleg is; it seems that they’re moving him from prison to prison and he is now in a place much closer to the North Pole. The conditions here are much tougher than where he was in originally. He is now facing problems with his health, specifically problems with his heart. We were hoping for some sort of exchange but not to change location for the purpose of tougher conditions.
Regarding the speech that Oleg gives at the end of the film, how did anyone allow him to say the things he was saying? Was his monologue on the state of Russia cut off at all? He’s placing himself with artists fighting the state. I wonder how aware he was of placing himself with Soviet artists? How aware was he that this filming was going out to a large audience? How much of this awareness help to shape the film?
There hasn’t been much of an interruption between Soviet Russia and the current Russia. It looks very much the same. I had some cooperation with Oleg but only through his lawyer and attorney. Through this cooperation I was able to get permission to meet his family and children. It was very important to Oleg that he knew what I was doing. Of course, Oleg had prepared all of his speeches during the trial. I think that it was very important to Oleg to have the ability to say something to a larger audience. In a way, he is a co-director of this film.
The last words in the trial are “Do not be afraid”. It seems you’re not afraid yourself… What have been the consequences for you?
Just to make a correction: He says the people should “Learn not to be afraid.”. I didn’t have any problems during the filming and I still don’t have problems with authorities or crossing borders. For instance, I didn’t face any issues coming to Canada. Maybe they just don’t really care about me? It’s not absolutely the same Soviet times in Russia at the moment. The borders are still open, there are at least a few medias and real newspapers, some internet and TV channels as well as some online media.
Has the film been shown in Russia? Or available? What has the reaction to it been?
It hasn’t yet premiered in Russia. We’ve tried but some film festivals refused to include it without an explanation. It’s not officially banned or forbidden, but the system sends you signals and you just have to choose what to do. I hope that in a week we’ll have news of an independent film festival in Russia if they’ll include the film. If they do we’ll include it and premiere it in Russia. Shortly after that, we’ll put it online on online forums.
Can you interpret the scene that comes early into the film? The scene where a couple of men light an entranceway on fire and then a different man extinguishes it, what was this meant to show and how was interpreted by the FSB officers? Also, how does Oleg feel Ukrainian? Was his family dismissive of his Ukrainians beliefs? Did that come up in your conversation with them?
This scene took place in Crimea, and the entranceway was an office of pro-Russian organizations used by the officers who detained pro-Ukrainian activists in Crimea. The two who lit the fire were normal guys, they were not military or police. They had information that these pro-Ukrainians were tortured there, so they tried to burn these places. It was out of protest. The FSB tried to use this to say that they were extremists and that they have a connection to a radical right organization and that Oleg was the leader of this organization. It’s very complicated but they basically tried to connect a lot of cases together in order to create this illusion of a big network.
Regarding the second question, this question of identity is new. Oleg was part of this new form of Ukrainian identity. His sister does not share this idea. His mother doesn’t like what happened after the annexation but she feels as though “she’s between two fires,” in her exact words. When editing the film, they decided to let her cousin [Natalia Kaplan, a main figure in the film –Editor] explain this complicated situation because I didn’t think it would be right to use the mother for the explanation.
When you’re showing the man who was identified as insane and who was a specialist in chemistry, and the scene where they’re testing chemicals in a wooded area; how did you get the material of those scenes?
This is the material of the FSB, it was just part of the case. I got the material from Oleg’s attorney as the scene was shown as evidence during the trial.
I noticed that Oleg called Putin a “Bloody Dwarf”. Almost every country has limitations on called leaders names. Can you comment on that? He’s making reference to Putin’s height I believe, which I would say is name calling, or bullying right?
When I was there during this trial, I didn’t feel that Oleg had crossed any boundaries. I think that sometime’s it is calling names in a direct meaning. An artist’s task is calling names or to find the real names of a character.
First, why did FSB choose Oleg as a mastermind in your opinion, was he already on a blacklist? Second, when are you planning to screen your movie in Ukraine?
We actually already had a premiere in Ukraine in March at a film festival [DocuDays, the leading documentary festival in Ukraine –Editor]. After that we had a release in the biggest cities in Ukraine, and we continue to have screenings from time to time.
I think from the very beginning that Oleg was a random victim. After, I realised that Oleg was in some kind of list because he had communications with Ukrainian activists in Maidan and had some activity with the Ukrainian military who were in Crimea. [He brought humanitarian assistance to soldiers trapped in their barracks –Editor] Oleg even tried to organize a rally against the annexation before the referendum. Of course, the FSB knew about him. Maybe they chose him because he was one of the most well-known persons in Crimea and it allowed the FSB to achieve multiple goals. They were able to stop Oleg as well as other activists. Many activists just abandoned their actions. This worked really well for propaganda, and they were able to use this case to prove there is a dangerous Right Sector in Crimea.
Your film makes a gruesome impression of what’s going on in Russia and the regime. How do you see the situation in Russia right now and did you get any support on the ground while making the film; any solidarity that wasn’t shown in the film?
In Russia, we had many activists who left Russia and went to Ukraine. Oleg’s cousin is an example of that. We are always waiting for something to help the political situation. You know that we had this protests movement in 2011 and then in 2012 we were so inspired. It looked like we just needed a little time to change everything and then nothing happened. After that, the system changed a lot in the political sphere and we had more and more political prisoners. In the spring, suddenly many young people went to the streets completely unexpectedly. Nobody knows why they suddenly appeared. I don’t know how and when but I hope that this regime will change quite soon.
What do you think about making movies to change the political system? You’re educating through movies but has anything really happened? What can art do?
I don’t believe that movies can change things but that movies can change individuals. These individuals are the ones who can change everything. I do believe that we must use art. We have one experience of Soviet times when one specific person was imprisoned. Many European artists tried to help him and only after a famous person said that he will only come to the Soviet Union once this prisoner is free did we see a chance. Maybe something similar will happen to Oleg.
In a sense this is a Russian film; it’s about the Russian justice system. It’s also Ukrainian, he identifies as Ukrainian. Central Europeans made this movie possible through funding, how do you explain that you couldn’t get funding from Ukrainians?
As I explained to by a Ukrainian film producer, the economic situation was very difficult after Maidan and the only funding is state funding. All in all, I’m not sure why Ukraine didn’t give us money.