Filmmaking Solidarity. The case of Oleg Sentsov

Agnieszka Holland in conversation with Grzegorz Brzozowski · 25 August 2015
How can the international community stand up to political violence which breaches the rights of individuals? How can filmmakers in the West, and their Russian peers, respond to radical steps being taken by the Kremlin?

Grzegorz Brzozowski: How important was it for you to add your signature to the letter published by the European Film Academy in support of Oleg Sentsov?

Agnieszka Holland: I don’t know Oleg personally, I have only spoken with Ukrainians who are friends of his. Regardless of my sympathies and admiration for his brave stance, every time a filmmaker is treated with this extreme degree of repression and injustice – Iranian filmmakers have also experienced similar treatment – we try, as the European Film Academy, to speak up on their behalf. We are counting on being able to influence the situation in some gradual way – through public opinion and the media – to affect the behaviour of governments in countries which apply this sort of methodology. Results, of course, are not instantaneous, but there is little more we can do, and for people who are repressed and facing long prison sentences, such as Oleg, this is a form of support, including moral support.

In Sentsov’s case, what is disturbing is not only his arrest, but also the arbitrary and heavy-handed way he was treated during his interrogation, as well as the length of time the process has been delayed. The key witness, Gennady Afanasyev – the only one whose testimony has been used to build a case against Sentsov – has withdrawn his statements. He was incredibly brave to admit that torture had been used in order to extract them. Everything points to the case being trumped up on such ridiculous charges that even people who believe in Putin’s propaganda more than us must see that this is simply about political provocation, an attack on an innocent man.

The last appeal launched by the European Film Academy was about a year ago, following Sentsov’s arrest, although it is hard to see how it has helped the filmmaker’s cause.

Back then, we only had the idea that Oleg is innocent. Which is why our first protest was restrained. After a year, when it became clear what sorts of methods had been used to extract statements against him, from witnesses as well as Oleg himself, when it became clear there is a total lack of trustworthy evidence to back up the charges, the innocence of the accused is to us all evident. The previous appeal, apart from the fact that it was important to Sentsov himself, giving him strength and courage, was also important to us. All-encompassing indifference and egoism are not meant to help communities such as ours to be able to admire ourselves in the mirror, with a sense of inner righteousness. It is not enough to make morally appropriate, politically correct films; this won’t help much if we are not able to stand and speak up, especially when repressions affect one of our own. Of course, we are equally against repressions which affect those outside of our community. Our direct responsibility remains, however, with those we are obliged to defend. Solidarity nurtured through the defence of our Ukrainian colleague can be useful in supporting the freedoms of creative filmmakers across the whole of Europe. And for us too it is good to leave the safety of festivals and box offices in order to be more clear about the dangers to our collective freedoms.

You have made reference to the famous filmmakers’ protests against the jailing of, among others, the Iranian director Jafar Panahi in 2010. That protest was spread out across several years – he was invited, for example, to be a member of the jury at the Cannes Festival, where his chair was left symbolically unoccupied on the judging panel. In his case, the only success so far has been to reduce his prison sentence to house arrest and to smuggle more films out to international festivals. In view of this, how do you see the effectiveness of such actions?

In Sentsov’s case, we tried similar methods. Many festivals prepared empty panel chairs for him. In one of the Cannes festival sections, an appeal for his release was shown before every screening. At the European Awards gala in Riga in December, Wim Wenders and I talked about his case while up on stage. We asked his sister and the producer of his films to go up with us. We collected funds for his family (Oleg has singlehandedly raised two children, one of them ill) and for his legal defence. During the Orly Awards gala, organised by the Polish Film Academy and transmitted on national television, the whole auditorium held up placards with the words “I am Oleg Sentsov” printed on them. These images were then shown by media channels across many countries. We are trying to get our appeal out to politicians and other news outlets. Step by step. Oleg was only working on his second film, wasn’t yet as famous as Jafar, and so it has been more difficult to engage public opinion across the world. We aren’t helped by the fact that many in the West somehow support Putin, and so their hearts and ears aren’t always open to appeals for help when it comes to his victims.

We know what happened in the case of non-filmmaker Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Constant pressure from various sources at a certain point had an effect. The same was true of Pussy Riot. Regardless of whether we succeed or not, we have to do what we have to do, with the hope that this “amplified” prisoner will at some point become a bargaining chip.

Why has the European Film Academy decided to act again now?

For a year, Sentsov has been kept in prison, with proceedings against him adjourned. The hearings began in July of this year, but were then interrupted after the key witness withdrew his testimony. On Wednesday, 19th of August, the final stage of the process began: the prosecutor demanded a sentence of 23 years behind bars for Sentsov, without taking into account the lack of any evidence to support his accusations. Sentsov only gave a “closing statement”. The verdict is to be announced on the 25th of August [UPDATE: since this interview was given, Russian courts have sentenced Sentsov to 20 years imprisonment]. We are trying to encourage correspondents and diplomats to attend the sentencing hearing. We would like their presence there to be a certain testimony, and the accused – alongside Oleg, there is also Alexander Kolchenko, a Ukrainian anti-fascist activist – can see that the world has not forgotten about them.

My generation happens to remember these kinds of cases from Soviet Russia, communist Poland and Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and ’80s, and so we know how hard it is to win over public opinion. It’s worth it in all sorts of ways, providing an essential form of resistance in such situations. I myself, when I was a student in Prague, after the Prague Spring was quashed, found myself in prison and was subjected to a show trial. Years later, in Paris, I met Natalia Gorbaniewska (when we were organising actions in the name of opposition activists after the state of martial law was declared in Poland), who had the guts to go out and protest on Red Square against Soviet forces intervening in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Such a protest involved taking real risks, while today we are risking nothing. All the more reason why we cannot forget about our colleague, who is facing the prospect of 23 years in a Russian gulag! I can still remember when Krzysztof Kieślowski decided to shoot a documentary film about the trials surrounding Poland’s martial law in the early 1980s. Somehow, he managed to get permission to film inside the court rooms. He quickly realised that he had no idea how to shoot this film, but he kept attending the hearings, because he could see that when his crew was in attendance, the judges were giving out much more lenient sentences, often setting the accused free.

Is it possible to draw certain parallels between the political mechanisms of current cultural policy in Russia and the previous regime? Mike Downey, the vice president of the European Film Academy, compared present-day methods used by Russian courts to those from Stalinist days.

Sentsov’s legal treatment is key in that it shows new tendencies: repressive methods being used against more and more social, national and professional groups. Up until now, excepting Pussy Riot, people from the world of culture were not singled out for persecution by this regime. Russia’s current aims are different to those of the Soviet Union – based on a different form of ideology: a strong nationalism rather than quasi-communist ideologies – but their methods are very similar. This is actually surprising, to see them presented in the very same sort of language. When one analyses the prosecution’s proceedings, such as the way they formulated certain bits of evidence and propagandist phrasing against Sentsov, they are staggeringly similar.

In bringing this case against a representative of the film world, is the regime not revealing their fear of film as a tool of potential political protest?

I am not sure if the decision to go after Sentsov was made with full awareness of his role as a filmmaker. He was active in Kiev, during the Maidan protests, and after his return to Crimea and its annexation he organised a movement against it. He was singled out because he is a charismatic leader, the regime assigning to him labels such as “fascist”, “nationalist” and “member of Right Sector”, as is happening more and more often with Russian propaganda. His affiliation is decidedly different, he is a typically idealistic democrat. I think that the fact that he is a filmmaker was of secondary importance to all that.

Sentsov himself is not really interested in a politically propagandist function of his filmmaking process, even if his Gamer had certain allegorical elements to it. This seems to me representative of the young generation of the most interesting Ukrainian directors – the hero of Gamer could reside anywhere else, but the way the story is told shows something of the fears specific to that country: uncertainty, brutality, entrapment. The Tribe, a debut film by Myroslav Slaboshpycki, is also an excellent example. But what is interesting is that filmmakers are separating their public or political activities from the films they make. They avoid creating agitprop or films which put forward simple theses. This shows how creatively mature are.

How do you rate the response from Russian filmmakers regarding Sentsov’s case? The appeal organised by the European Film Academy has not be signed by many. It is only recently that independent voices such as that of Andrey Zvyagintsev have joined in the cause. The position on this from the Russian filmmakers’ federation Kinosoyuz is deemed to be moderate – instead of calling into question the very way in which the process has been initiated, it is merely requesting that it be conducted in an appropriate manner.

Nikita Mikhalkov backed our first letter of appeal, published after Sentsov’s arrest. Michalkov is trapped between a rock and a hard place, for sure, it is important for him not to make a singularly negative impression on other European filmmakers, and yet his political affiliations are widely known. Many Russian filmmakers have spoken out in this case. A few days ago, Kinosoyuz published a letter, signed by over a dozen people, who have since been joined by many – for Russian standards – more signatories. They also reprinted our letter of protest, in Russian translation. Aleksandr Sokurov, Aleksey German Jr. and many others, including Andrey Zvyagintsev, who went to the trouble of poring over all of the charges against Sentsov, and it is clear the documents did not stand up to his scrutiny. So it’s not that everyone is afraid or in line with official propaganda.

Yet, it’s not a straightforward matter. In his most recent court statement, Sentsov quotes Bulgakhov in naming cowardice as the greatest sin, even though this is his, very defined, point of view and position. And yet we know what there are instances in human history when not speaking out against crimes was equivalent to agreeing with them. It must be very difficult for our Russian colleagues to get involved, seeing as the atmosphere inside their country is such that by becoming involved one can lose the ability to work, to access filmmaking resources. Personally speaking, seeing as I don’t have to work under such conditions, I have no right to lecture them, to judge or to advise. Everyone has to weigh things up according to their own conscience. But I agree with Sentsov – that which is most dangerous for the future of Russia is its all-pervasive conformism and lack of belief that resistance can achieve anything.

Sentsov’s case seems to indicate that Russian filmmakers who try to protect their autonomy are facing some very worrying repercussions.

If the situation in Russia continues as it is now, there is no doubt many restrictions, both censorship and personal, will be introduced. Besides, in all post-communist countries we are observing a strong tendency for changes in political power structures to also involve changes in people’s personal lives, which in a democratic state should be completely independent of government. It is already happening in Hungary, and might happen in Poland, if a party as ideologically authoritarian as PiS get into power in upcoming elections. The relationship between government and the arts, which is a complex thing, continues to be a problem in the current century. One must be watchful and pay attention to troublesome developments, before they become in some way institutionalised. Yet, all that is secondary to the case of Sentsov, who is facing a very long spell behind bars, in spite of his innocence. Here we can come to the aid of one man, which is much easier than trying to deal with the whole Russian filmmaking community – what counts is that we don’t allow a breakdown in communication, that we continue talking. And so, we show their films at festivals, in cinemas, they are nominated for and awarded prizes when their films have powerful, honest artistic merit, but we cannot tell them what they should be doing and how they should be defending their own freedoms.

Translated by Marek Kazmierski