BERLIN – For the last six years, for Europe’s movie community at least, the most famous political prisoner in the world was the Ukraine’s Oleg Sentsov. Arrested on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014 – Amnesty International compared his court case to the show trials of Stalin – Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment as a pawn in a larger game of realpolitik via which Vladimir Putin attempted to dissuade Crimea’s Ukrainians from dissidence.
Behind bars in a Northern Siberia penal colony, in 2018 Sentsov went on a hunger strike in 2018 demanding the release of Ukrainian political prisoners and, remarkably, began to direct a movie. That film, “Numbers,” world premieres Tuesday Feb. 18 as part of the Berlinale’s 70th anniversary celebrations. Sold by Latino Films, it then screens in the festival on Feb. 21, as a Berlinale Special.
Variety has had access to the film’s trailer and to Sentsov himself, freed last summer in an exchange of prisoners, in the build up to the festival.
In many ways, it’s a remarkable interview. He directed the film not to waste time in prison, and because it “made sense.” He has no advice to give about his incarceration: he always knew he would be freed; directing from a high-security gulag during a hunger strike did make him “somewhat tired,” he admits. And the character he most identifies with in the film is the lily-livered Seventh, one of ten track-suited inmates of a dystopian society who, known by their numbers, compete against disqualification in a world where they largely mope around a concrete courtyard with concrete terrace seating rehashing the same inane regulation, eating while jogging overseen by the Great Zero, their God-like ruler who, bored to hell, watches on from a balcony in his dressing gown, taking frequent naps and eating trash food. The film is based on a play Sentsov wrote years before imprisonment. Given that, it still seems remarkably prescient about what would happen to him. Here’s the interview, with hardly a word missing.
Incarcerated, with no idea of your future, you determine to direct a film. Was this a gut act of rebellion, a decision that authorities could deprive you of your physical freedom but not of something you must hold dear: Your creative self?
Oleg Sentsov: I always knew I’d be freed. I never doubted such a happy end to my fate. I simply tried not to waste my time in prison: Books, short stories, screenplays, and when there was an idea – to carry out filming of my play, I started participating in it as a co-director. Obviously, there was hope that I would be freed by the beginning of the shoot, but it didn’t happen. That’s why we asked [Akhtem Seitablaiev] to help us and he gladly came on board. I’m grateful to everyone for all they’ve done. I’d rather consider it as a social project aimed at helping me, so to say, to prevent me from fading away in jail, by keeping me busy with something interesting, so it was a kind of support action for a director who is imprisoned but nevertheless can continue his creative work.
You say in a director’s statement written from prison that when you closed your eyes, the play came to you. Was this why you choose to adapt it? Or because of its relevance to your circumstances? Or was there another reason?
I wrote this play long ago, it’s been ten years now, and it has nothing to do whatsoever with the revolution, because at that time it didn’t exist. It’s a kind of manifesto of my standpoint of a human being, a citizen, and an artist towards any regime, firstly, towards dictatorship, and secondly, towards society. The play expressed my views exactly. And then, afterwards, when the situation in our country started to develop in such a way that it became possible to defeat the felonious regime, I started to act openly, like a citizen and not an artist.
Could you explain briefly what were the crux mechanisms by which you were able to direct a film from a jail? How did you get the directions out? Were you ever able to see any images?
I knew everything off by heart so, though I didn’t have a written text, I could be kept perfectly up-dated on everything. I exchanged letters with practically all the members of the team, the co-director in Moscow, casting director, assistant director, storyboard artists and costume designers. In principle, I was able to maintain direct contact with all of them by mail. Everything went perfectly well in pre-production. There are the so-called electronic letters – e-mails – which got through here and there within a week. But that was somewhat insufficient, also, because it happened to be simultaneous with my hunger strike. My lawyer visited me frequently and during these prison meetings he kept showing me the images through a glass. Having looked at them, I immediately wrote some comments. He also showed me letters from the creative team. I’d answer and he’d send my answers the same day to my group. So communication was even faster. Naturally, it was really tough physically because all this took place during my hunger strike. My brain worked pretty poorly. I was altogether weary and it was psychologically hard. But this work helped me keep a grip on myself, because it made sense, because during the hunger strike time hung heavily on my hands. It was psychologically unbearable to run such a marathon for so long. The work sustained me, made me switch on my thinking. That’s why it was really good.
Does the film substantially change the 2011 play, or the screenplay adaptation which I believe you wrote before being jailed?
I always work on the final version of a screenplay with great care, in this case it was a play, because the play is very similar to the screenplay in its dramaturgy, in its timing. The final version is the version in which I do not change anything. This is true of my screenplays and my play. So no changes were introduced since 2011, because I finalized it and it was filmed in such shape. Neither the prison nor any other circumstances changed it.
Your letters with directions suggests a large energy in their exclamation marks and rapid handwriting. What were your feelings when directing? A sense of catharsis? Or community with your fellow filmmakers, actors and crew? That you were not alone?
I never feel lonely, even in a prison single-seater cell. Those are different things. I didn’t experience any catharsis. I don’t know how one could experience a catharsis stemming from your own work; you can only experience a catharsis from somebody else’s work – from a show. Of course, I felt united with the team and that was marvelous, because I personally knew many people participating in the shoot. However, I was not a full-fledged director. Rather O provided advice, set directions, because after all, there, on site, everything was clearer. Also, letters were often delayed, a week, even 10 days. So I could write a letter in which I suggested something and a letter came to me from my team which suggested exactly the same, which meant that we were on the same wavelength, speaking of the same things, feeling each other and the material so well. We were expressing exactly the same things in parallel, which meant that we were working as a team, understanding each other perfectly well.
You don’t film a performance of the play but rather get the camera on stage close to the actors, as in cinema. But what were your main decisions as a cinema director when adapting the play?
Initially, the idea was to “make a film” of a performance which was staged in Kiev, we wanted to record the performance and make its video version, and then, based on this original idea, a new idea was born to make a feature film, i. e. it somewhat degenerated from that first idea. Because I wanted the spectacle to be recorded not like a movie, but exactly as a spectacle. I wanted to maintain some staginess – theatricality – and not import a cinematographic flavor to the work. It is very important, anyway, in this play it is so important to save this sense of the grotesque, of the absurd in such a theatrically-distorted manner, because film doesn’t contemplate such a language but for theatre it’s fine.
And I wanted to preserve this style to make it suit the viewer best, and that was the original idea. I am a film director, mainly write screenplays have many ideas of cinema. But I write of course some literary things that are impossible for cinema, where the idea clashes with the material. Here there’s just one play, totally mine. Initially, I thought it would be impossible make a film out if it. Once we transformed it into a film, I was inclined to maintain the theatrical language. There were not so many shoot days. One idea to rehearse the whole film like a spectacle, and then record with filmmaking tools. So the picture was shot with very long takes, to preserve the theatrical space of action, the stage space and this specifically theatrical spirit. That’s why it wasn’t shot in short shots, but as long scenes, whole episodes.
Is there any character you feel closer to in the film?
The seventh question , and the answer’s Seventh. I really believe every author writes about himself. Every character has a bit of me because all of them have been generated from me. But Seventh is obviously the closest to me of them all, which isn’t to say that he is me. Naturally he is not a servile copy of myself, but some things are reflected in your main heroes. It is always the case with me in all my films. I transfer a bit of myself to every main hero of my screenplays, it is not possible to be otherwise, otherwise you will not feel him. How can you give birth to him, [unless] he¡s a part of yourself.
A film which sees a revolution which ends up as as worse as the past. Could that be read in any way as an allegory for current day Russia?
This play was written neither about Ukraine nor about Russia. It was all written about our society, about people, because the psychology of people is very similar everywhere, in all the revolutions they are very much alike. That’s why I wrote about the fact that, as it always happens, any attempt to reform the society may lead to yet more severe failures, to yet more complex difficulties than those prior to the beginning of the revolution.
Now free, what would you urge people to learn from your experience?
I don’t know, I do not appeal to the people regarding anything. I don’t busy myself with such issues. I do what I consider important. If for anyone it gives an example, that’s good, but I don’t undertake to teach others. I am not a mentor nor a guru.
Could you talk briefly about the upcoming “Rhino,” and other film plans?
The film “Nosorog” [“Rhino”]. The screenplay for this film was also written as early as 2011. It is a biopic, but there is a real person which the screenplay was based on. Here again, a part has been taken from him, and another part from myself. This is a film about the 1990s in Ukraine. It is a crime drama about the era of flourishing thuggery. Appropriately, the main hero’s also involved in this kind of activity. Why “Rhinoceros”? Because everybody knows how a rhinoceros behaves: So strong, aggressive, not afraid of anyone, thick skinned, but what’s to be found inside – no one knows. Those kids, the bandits [robbers] are known to everybody for their violent acts, but what if there’s something inside, what makes them behave like that? What are their feelings – very few have ever thought of that. I want to show that because it’s important to me. I always make films about human beings. The environment, the theme itself is of least interest to me. We were working on this film in 2012. We started and won several pitching contests. At the Odessa Film Festival, one for our national fund as the best film project in Ukraine. We carried out pre-production in 2013 in Crimea. We were then ready to start shooting, but, unfortunately, the revolution began in our country, then came the war, prison, and in consequence the project was put on hold. Now we are reviving it, beginning again from scratch: New producers, co-producers, I myself am both a screenwriter, director and co-producer of this film. There’s also an Ukrainian producer, a Polish producer and a German one. We’re now in pre-production, so if everything goes well, we’ll start shooting in September.