The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov: An interview with director Askold Kurov
Askold Kurov’s new documentary is a compelling indictment against the fate of the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, whose case received a fair amount of media attention in 2015. Sentsov was accused of plotting terrorist attacks on the Crimean peninsula to destabilise the Russian authorities who had annexed the territory (or invaded it, if you prefer). The evidence against Sentsov was not exactly strong but the case still relentlessly proceeded in what was seen as a particularly showy show trial. We spoke to Askold Kurov about his worries while making the documentary, and why people still can believe propaganda.
Your documentary details how a number of witnesses in this case were intimidated and even tortured in order to testify against Oleg Sentsov. Given these methods, were you worried during the making of the film that Russian authorities might take an interest in you?
Yes, of course; I had some paranoia, because the situation is very difficult in Russia, and nobody knows what will go on, in that there are no rules about who they pay attention to. For me it was safe for the whole time, because I knew my subjects were being watched by the secret service. Their cell phones were tapped, and so on, and it’s very difficult. You must be responsible for the characters, because sometimes they tell you things that should not be heard. I don’t think it would be like this for me [being targeted]. They try not choose somebody from the artists. We have many political prisoners and activists and so on. I don’t know of any other case when authorities jailed someone like a film director, or an artist, or writer.
Do you think the situation for political prisoners such as Oleg Sentsov in Russia will only get worse?
I don’t think it can get worse. In a way, it isn’t good for authorities that international society is paying attention to their prisoners. I think that for Russian authorities Oleg is just a prisoner they can exchange for something, or somebody. There are Russian military personnel in prison in the Ukraine, for example, and so they could be exchanged for them, or in response to some kind of sanctions. Russia also will host the football championships, and of course Pussy Riot were released right before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and I hope that the same will happen to Oleg.
So Oleg is hopeful that he will be released before his 20-year jail term is officially over?
He doesn’t believe that this regime can exist for as long as 20 years, and this seems so. The system is broken. It cannot exist for much longer. There are no insights, and it’s getting worse all the time.
Are there any plans to show the film in Russia? Given its subject matter, what do you think the response will be?
It’s not easy to show this film in Russia because of the subject. No TV stations or media will be brave enough to show it. Almost all Russian media outlets are a type of propaganda. We have maybe one independent TV station in Russia, but this is internet broadcasting, and some newspapers, and one independent radio station for the whole of Russia. But maybe it will be possible to show this film at some international film festival in Russia because we don’t have any Russian producers on this film. This means that it is a foreign film for Russia, and according to Russian law, all Russian films must have a special certificate from the Ministry of Culture. Of course, it’s just a tool for censorship, but foreign films don’t need to have this certificate. So it might be shown as a foreign film in some Russian festivals.
There’s a lot of talk about the use of propaganda in the film. Is it really so widespread in Russia?
Most Russian people believe Russian TV and media. It’s very strange. I thought we had passed all this during Soviet times. As a child, I remember the lies, and listening to all this TV propaganda and nobody believed it. But now they have the same propaganda and they use the same tools, although maybe the technology has improved. Still, they use the same rhetoric and people believe it. Or maybe they just want to believe it, because not to believe it means that your government lied to you, and that they did invade Ukraine, and that they do torture people, and so it’s easier to believe what you see on TV.
A 20-year jail sentence is enough to make anyone lose hope. Is Oleg’s family still fighting for his release?
Oleg’s cousin attended the Berlin premiere yesterday, and they still try to attract as much attention as possible to the case. But it’s hard to go on day by day, and year by year, and you can become close to losing hope. But they are not going to give up.
Read our review of The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov here.
For further information about the 67th Berlin Film Festival visit here.
Read more reviews from the festival here.