Askold Kurov. Source: Cinema Lira. The last time I met Russian documentary filmmaker Askold Kurov, he was still filming his documentary The Trial. In 2015, Kurov was a constant observer of the show trial of two Crimean residents — filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and anti-fascist Alexander Kolchenko — who were sentenced on terrorism charges to 20 and 10-year sentences respectively. The Trial, which follows Sentsov’s case in depth, was first shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 2017, and screenings have since turned into public events in support of releasing the Ukrainian filmmaker and other political prisoners. Indeed, filmmakers from across the world have called for his release.
On 4 June, Kurov met Sentsov in prison at Labytnangi in Russia’s Yamal-Nenets region, where Sentsov has declared a hunger strike in support of releasing all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. Sentsov’s hunger strike has led to a whole series of actions across the world. Sentsov recently wrote a letter to G7 leaders with a request to do something to change the fate of Ukrainian political prisoners.
Kurov and I met a few days later in Kyiv to talk about his mission, activism, the trip to Labytnangi and The Trial.
Why are you in Kyiv? Have you come on some sort of mission?
Yes, I have a mission. I was in Labytnangi prison on Monday, I met Oleg Sentsov. And so Maria Tomak, a Kyiv rights defender, invited me here to attend a closed meeting with representatives from embassies of G7 states. This was a special meeting dedicated to Oleg Sentsov. I talked about our trip to the prison colony, meeting Oleg, his condition, his living conditions there and what Labytnangi and the region in general is like. We spoke about the solidarity movement among filmmakers in support of Sentsov. Natalia Kaplan, Oleg’s cousin, talked about Oleg’s family. Maria Tomak talked about Ukrainian political prisoners as a whole, the trials, what will happen next.
Of course, the main aim was to convince the representatives that Oleg Sentsov’s plight be included on the G7 summit’s agenda. We didn’t receive, of course, any answers, but these people weren’t authorised to give us any. But they promised to give this information to their governments. We really hope something comes of this.
What’s your impression after the meeting?
They were interested, they listened. Then they asked questions. We gave them a link to the film. I hope they watch it. It will help them relay the case in more detail.
Tell me about your trip to Labytnangi.
I went on the request of Radio Liberty to shoot a film about the journey of Dmitry Dinze, Sentsov’s lawyer, to Labytnangi together with Archbishop Kliment of Simferopol and Crimea, who also wanted to get a meeting with Oleg. When we arrived, it turned out that Archbishop Kliment couldn’t get a meeting with Oleg. And I wasn’t counting that I would get one either. Dmitry Dinze mentioned that perhaps they might permit a telephone conversation with Oleg, perhaps a meeting. But the prison administration somehow heard this, and they decided to permit a meeting.
A trailer for Askold Kurov's film The Trial.
This is an unprecedented case — it’s a strict regime prison, Oleg should only have meetings with relatives or his lawyer. And I don’t know why they decided to permit it. I have a theory that they wanted to demonstrate some sort of openness, friendliness. On the other hand, they understand what kind of international attention from the press is on Oleg’s hunger strike, and thus on the prison colony itself. And perhaps, they just needed a unbiased witness to the fact that Sentsov isn’t complaining about the conditions there, that he’s in a normal physical condition.
A gesture of good will, then.
Yes. A big thank you to them.
How was it?
The meeting was short. We lost half a day just getting to Labytnangi. The ice has started melting on the Ob river and you can’t take the ferry from Salekhard to Labytnangi, you can only go by helicopter. We had to wait for it. It’s very cold there now, there’s still snow on the ground. There’s not much in the way of plant life, a very harsh climate — and that’s affecting Oleg’s health.
Of course Oleg wants to live, he hasn’t got a death wish. He’s got something to live for — kids, aims in life. But he’s an idealist and these higher tasks, his convictions, are more important than everything else
It took a long time to get there, then, and there had to be time for Dmitry Dinze to meet with Oleg. Our meeting lasted 45 minutes in total. He seemed to be in a good state psychologically. He isn’t depressed or in a bad way. He isn’t wavering or doubting what he’s doing. He’s as decisive as before, logical and confident in himself. As to his health, yes, he has lost eight kilos since he started even preparing for the hunger strike. He prepared for it over a month and a half, gradually refusing and stopping taking food. The day we arrived, he was taken to a hospital outside the prison for a medical inspection. They did an ultrasound, some other tests that didn’t find any problems with how his body is working. Oleg agreed to have supporting therapy — twice a day he gets an IV with glucose and some other vitamins, to support his body.
Is he writing anything?
Yes, he’s writing. He didn’t tell me what he’s writing. But he said that he’d written several short stories. And a novel. And now he’s working on two film scripts. I told him that I was really looking forward to when he’ll be able to make these films, because I really like his cinema. He said that, yes, he’s also waiting.
Of course Oleg wants to live, he hasn’t got a death wish. He’s got something to live for — kids, aims in life. But he’s an idealist and these higher tasks, his convictions, are more important than everything else.
So it turns out you met the main protagonist of your film.
At last! I couldn’t film it, record it. The prison officers recorded it on camera. That’s also unprecedented. Usually, prison visits aren’t filmed. But that was a condition here. Oleg and I later joked that we would ask the man who filmed our meeting to save that recording, we’ll definitely need it later.
Did you speak about The Trial?
Oleg told me: “Sorry, but I won’t watch your film, I don’t want to.” I understand him completely, no one wants to live through all that all over again, to remember. You want to forget it like a bad drea,. But still he was very interested how it’s going in general, where the film has been shown, what the press reaction was, the audience reaction. He was very happy that the film was being shown in Ukraine, including on television. Now the film is free to watch in Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in connection with the hunger strike — this is to attract more attention, so that people can watch it.
I told him that this year was the last Artdocfest in Russia. He was interested in all the news. And about cinema, too, he asked about Cannes, but I couldn’t answer him — he told me off for not preparing for the visit. And, of course, he asked about what was going on — the support actions in 30 countries, 80 cities. It was clear that his mood lifted, it’s important for him that people don’t forget about him, that this wave of support has come up, this movement. It seems to me that he’s got what he wanted: attention to the problem of political prisoners in Russia. I think he’s done it.
I remember a quotation of Oleg at trial, it’s in your film: “This sentence of 20 years, I’m not scared. I know that the era of the bloody dwarf’s rule will end before then.” And now he is on hunger strike — until his demands are met.
As Oleg said: “Why should I live like this for the remaining 16 years, at least I can do something for Ukrainian political prisoners.” That’s a direct quote. I think it’s connected to the fact that, it’s true, hopes are fading. There’s already been so many reasons to expect an early release — after the release of Nadiya Savchenko, Hennady Afanasyev. Every time this wave of support rises, we think: oh any day now, it’ll happen. And then earlier this year there were Putin’s elections in Russia, now the World Cup — and again nothing happens. So this is probably an act of desperation. If nothing is changing, then he doesn’t just want to live another 16 years like this.
Oleg Sentsov. CC BY-SA 4.0 Antonymon / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.Today people are really supportive of Sentsov. There’s a lot of interest from media, politicians are getting involved. But the trial itself, as you remember, attracted little attention in comparison. And I thinking why did it turn out like this, wouldn’t it have been simpler to stop the trial at the very beginning, when no sentence had yet been announced — after all, it was clear then that this case was fabricated, “sewn with white threads” as Oleg put it.
On the contrary, I think there were less chances before. Now, at least, there are reasons — the G7 meeting, the World Cup in Russia just about to begin. And that’s why there are many more chances now, the time frame is clear. First, we are counting the number of days he’s on hunger strike, reminding one another and ourselves that time is running out — this man is getting closer and closer to death by the time, because he won’t give up. This is why everyone has mobilised, come together to apply their energies.
Another courtroom quote from your film, this time from Russian political scientist Kirill Rogov: “This is how repressions in autocratic states are organised, this is what we’re seeing in Russia today. They work very well with the media agenda, and repressions for them are very important stories. They popularise, signal to the elites, activists and general population about how to behave, what the costs might be.” Your film is about part of the media story. What role is it playing?
I often have the following dialogue after I show the film to audiences. Especially abroad. They ask: “Are you being persecuted?” I say: “No, I’m not being persecuted”. “Have you had any problems filming?” “No, no problems.” “Why, do you think?” And I say probably because that this is a show trial, they want it to be seen. “So you’re being used?” “Yes, I’m being used. But I think that this film is not fulfilling that task. Yes, it shows the cynicism and absurdity with which this case was fabricated. But I think that the topic of choice is important here. Someone will see the film, get scared and decide that they’ll never stick their neck out and do anything on dangerous ground. But someone else will hear Oleg’s call “to learn how not to be afraid, and stop being frightened.
You’re one of the people who heard that call.
Well, I hope so. Although what I’ve done is not comparable to what people in prison, including Oleg Sentsov, are suffering for.
So you’re not afraid?
How am I not afraid? Any person is afraid. Not a single normal person wants to be in prison. No one wants to go through all of this. It’s just you start thinking and realise that you can’t behave differently. If you behave differently, it means, that you’ve broken something inside yourself, you’ve gone somewhere — and from there, you won’t be able to restore and repair yourself.
Having met Oleg, you, it seems, have moved from documentary cinema to activism. Or were you always an activist? Or are you still more of a documentary maker?
I’ve never been an activist. But here, in the situation with Oleg… You could call this activist cinema. Cinematic activism. This film is the least directorial one I’ve made. I had different concepts, there were some very creative ideas, to use animation, a voice over.
Any person is afraid. Not a single normal person wants to be in prison. No one wants to go through all of this
But I understood that this film doesn’t need any of that. You just need to leave Oleg on his own. All these effects are out of place here. The most important thing is to edit it properly, arrange it the right way, to make sure that Oleg is the focus, his speech addressed to us.
Was it difficult to edit?
Very difficult. We had three versions, three editors - a Russian, German and, in the end, a Swedish one of Polish background Michal Leszczylowski, which we found thanks to co-producing from the Polish side, Dariusz Jabłoński and the Polish Film Institute. Leszczylowski is a leading editor, very experienced. One of his first films was Sacrifice by Andrey Tarkovsky. It’s a big honour for me that he helped create the final version.
Coming back to activism, then I need to say: we understood from the very beginning that this film should become part of the campaign in support of Oleg Sentsov. This is not simply a piece of art, it isn’t a piece of creative documentary. As Vitaly Mansky said, it’s a film-gesture. I think that’s a new term. I haven’t read about it before. And sure, let it be a film-gesture.
At showings, people often stay for the discussion, and they ask how they can help. Last year, Artdocfest printed postcards, two kinds of them. One set had bank details where you could transfer money, and others had Oleg’s address in Labytnangi, where you could write him a message.
Are you ready for a new film now? Or are you still finishing work on The Trial?
I’m already finishing edits of a new film about Novaya Gazeta. I spent a year and a half with them, documenting the life of the team there — this coincided with difficult moments such as the LGBT crackdown in Chechnya, persecutions, the case of Ali Feruz, the Novaya Gazeta journalist who they fought for and got released in the end. Now they are actively participating in the Sentsov campaign: each issue they print some kind of material on him, and they have a counter of the days he’s been on hunger strike. The last issue had an image of Oleg across the front cover and the hashtag FreeSentsov. And Oleg is subscribed to the only newspaper in prison, Novaya Gazeta. He hasn’t seen the cover yet — the paper gets there two weeks after it comes out. Everything, it turns out, is connected one way or another.