Few filmmakers achieve the meteoric success of Oleg Sentsov. After self-funding his first feature, Gamer, shot for $20,000, he received wide acclaim at the film’s premiere at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2012. The story is a raw, realistic portrayal of the isolation and glory dreams of a young video game player stuck in a small Ukrainian town. The sensitivity to his amateur actors (real gamers Sentsov met in his years running a gaming club for kids in Crimea), and the film’s intimacy earned Sentsov praise as a director. It also landed him funding for his next project, a gangster drama called Rhino. This was a director to watch.
But last year, Sentsov put his artistic ambitions on hold and joined the revolution sweeping his country, activism that made him a target of the Russian secret police. In May 2014, shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he was kidnapped from his home in Simferopol—the Crimean capital—and tortured and interrogated. He soon found himself in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison.
On Tuesday, a Russian court sentenced Sentsov to 20 years in a maximum-security prison on “terrorism” charges, the latest in a string of Kremlin show trials. Sentsov claimed that an investigator on his case, at the start of the examination, promised him 20 years in prison. His lawyers have said that documents and evidence were withheld from them. Human-rights group Amnesty International called the trial “fatally flawed,” citing credible allegations of torture, especially in extracting “witness” statements. During his captivity, Sentsov, a single father, leaves behind a daughter, Alina, around age 13, and a son, Vlad, around age 10, who suffers from autism. They are in the care of his sister. Russian authorities prohibit him from seeing his children.
“Oleg was really noticeable, he openly helped our militaries in Crimea, supporting their families there,” another activist, Oleksiy Gritsenko, told Hromadkse TV, an independent online news network in Ukraine. “He was on the Maidan [Kiev’s Independence Square]. I remember he was presented as a director from Crimea. He immediately joined our work. He was mainly engaged in the office work, he was responsible for the organizational part, composed of alternating schedules, for example. Here we always had some sense of order.”
As can be seen from the sensitive and shy protagonist in Gamer, a film based on Sentsov’s own years in competitive gaming, he’s not the type of person to seek to blow up buildings, as the Russian court charges. His first short film, A Perfect Day for Bananafish, was inspired by the J.D. Salinger short story, about an emotionally wounded young man who in vain seeks solace in the innocence of childhood.
Wim Wenders, the Oscar-nominated German director, saw Gamer twice in theaters. “What I know about [Sentsov], he was a gentleman, a polite, modest man. Certainly not an action hero, and certainly in no way a terrorist,” Wenders said in a video of support for Sentsov. The “Empty Chair” campaign was launched last year at film festivals, including in Venice, San Sebastian, Toronto, and Warsaw, among others, naming Sentsov an honorary jury member, marked by an empty chair in the jury lineups. The international film community has also organized fundraisers for Sentsov’s legal and medical aid, petitions, and letters calling for his release. His legal and medical expenses cost over $2,000 a month.
The Kremlin has been collecting bargaining chips in the form of political prisoners. Ukrainian environmental and anti-fascist activist Oleksandr Kolchenko was also sentenced on Tuesday, to 10 years, on charges related to Sentsov’s case. Ukrainian POW and pilot Nadiya Savchenko is being held for the murder of two Russian propagandists in east Ukraine, though her lawyers argue that she was already captured by Russian forces at the time of their deaths by shelling. She faces 25 years in prison. On August 19, Estonian security agent Eston Kohver, kidnapped last September from inside Estonia, was sentenced to 15 years for “spying.” The Ukrainian government believes that Russia is holding 11 of its citizens as political prisoners.
Heather McGill, Eurasia Researcher at Amnesty International, blasted the Sentsov verdict. “This whole trial was designed to send a message. It played into Russia’s propaganda war against Ukraine and was redolent of Stalinist-era show trials of dissidents.”
For Agnieszka Holland, the Oscar-nominated Polish director and chairwoman of the European Film Academy, who joins other leading filmmakers like Pedro Almodovar and Mike Leigh in demanding Sentsov’s release, this case hits close to home. Holland was born in Warsaw when Poland was under Russian occupation as part of the Soviet Union, and witnessed the Prague Spring while in Czechoslovakia. She was arrested for her support of a dissident movement demanding government reforms. “Artists have quite often been the victim of the authoritarian regime. It’s because they are not afraid to claim their truth,” Holland said in a video of support for Sentsov. She points out that it’s important to keep up the pressure and to not let Sentsov be forgotten.
In Sentsov’s own words, he gives us a chilling reminder of Soviet history repeating in Russia today. During Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, countless loyalists to the regime suddenly found themselves in prison. Crammed into cells, they were able to piece together the scant facts of their bewildering situations.
As Sentsov told a Russian court in Rostov-on-Don on August 19 in his defiant closing statement, “Our jails are full of fighters who are sent [to Ukraine]—like heroes—on your tanks, with your weapons. They are fighting there, thinking that you are waiting for them. [But] they will return, bringing back their weapons, and they will be met at the border and thrown in prison. And they will be surprised: ‘How can this be? After all, we were feted as heroes for going…’ They don't understand that that train only goes in one direction. Even here in prison they know that.” As The Daily Beast recently reported, Russian military deaths in “peacetime” have officially been declared a state secret. Russia has been known to go to extremes to conceal its dead soldiers. Is the Kremlin also throwing Russian soldiers in prison to hide the war?
Sentsov continued: “Here, in prison, I met with a GRU (Russian military intelligence) officer, your officer, or, rather soldier, who is being tried for another crime. He participated in the annexation of Crimea. On March 24 , they arrived by ship in Sevastopol and blockaded Ukrainian military units. As it turned out, he was blockading the very unit that I was supplying and evacuating. It is an interesting thing.”
As in Gamer, when the young protagonist insists “Even a hole has a light at the end of it,” Sentsov, in his closing statement, seems to embody such hope. He speaks to the best in Russians, overshadowed by the bloodlust and greed of the Putin crisis. Drawing a clear parallel with Stalin’s purges, Sentsov quotes the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, censored during the purges, which took away some of his friends—fellow artists. In the 1930s, Bulgakov secretly wrote a fantastical satire of the Soviet Union, The Master and Margarita. An early draft he burned in the stove out of fear that the secret police would show up again to search his home. Clearly calling on Russians to find the bravery that Bulgakov needed to stand up to the regime and rewrite his manuscript, Sentsov quoted the now classic novel: “Cowardice is the most important, the most terrible sin on Earth.”