Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh (not Oleg) Sentsov is back to doing what he loves after an incredibly challenging and near-fatal period that saw him incarcerated for a number of years by Russian authorities on charges that were widely condemned by human rights orgs.
Sentsov’s plight captured the hearts and minds of the international film community. He was arrested in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea, and sentenced to 20 years for “terrorism acts” in 2015. Amnesty International described the charges as “fabricated”.
Serving his time, the filmmaker declined visits from his family on the basis that other visitors were seen to fall into a depression after leaving, and eventually went on a hunger strike that lasted 145 days, leaving many believing he would never make it out alive.
Thankfully, in September 2019 Sentsov was released in a prisoner swap with Ukraine, after which he was reunited with his family. He now lives in Kyiv with his kids and is planning to marry his fiancée.
Rhino, the crime drama set in 1990s Ukraine, is his first movie made entirely on the outside since his release. The pic premieres in Venice Film Festival’s Horizons program on September 10. WestEnd Films is handling world sales.
Below, Sentsov tells us about returning to normality, the story behind Rhino, and how he was inspired by a Winston Churchill quote about supporting the arts.
DEADLINE: What’s the latest on your legal situation?
OLEH SENTSOV: I was falsely accused and illegally sentenced by Russia under fake charges in 2015 to 20 years’ imprisonment. The charges didn’t make any sense and all the international community knew this fact. That’s why I had such strong support.
DEADLINE: How has life been since your release? What was it like being back with your family? Are you able to travel internationally?
SENTSOV: It feels like I finally have my life back. I can travel, I love travel and I do travel. I did numerous international official meetings in order to support Ukrainian prisoners who are still in Russia. I’m regularly getting invited to various events. I am also very proud that after so many years, I’ve received my skipper license. I enjoy yachting and love being with my friends and family in the sea.
Of course, it’s wonderful to have my kids with me. I was able to relocate them from Crimea to Kyiv. I’m planning on getting married to my fiancée.
DEADLINE: You went straight back to filmmaking, writing and directing one movie from prison (Numbers) and now making another that is premiering in Venice, were you tempted to seek out a less high-profile career after your experiences?
SENTSOV: I decided to become a movie director in my early 30s. Since that time, I have never had any doubt about what I want to do. It’s my deep and inner need to write and make movies.
DEADLINE: Tell us about the inspirations for Rhino. You were originally hoping to make the film prior to your arrest, why did you decide to revisit it now?
SENTSOV: This story is based on real events. One of my friends became a prototype for the main character. We don’t have movies about the “wild” 90s in Ukraine. I wanted to show the world how life was for us after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a time of cruelty and meaningless violence. I don’t like and don’t tolerate violence.
DEADLINE: The casting process for your lead character was lengthy, with you seeing 700 ex-cons, military personnel and athletes, how did you arrive at Serhii Filimonov?
SENTSOV: I was very sceptical about Serhii at first. He didn’t look like Rhino. I was told that he was an athlete, a former football fan and a veteran. But when I met him, he looked entirely different. He was a young man who just founded his NGO, got married and had a little son. Only after numerous interviews, I recognised that his life experience met our needs. Serhii understands the complexity of life; he lost his friends in the war, he grew up in the challenging conditions but was able to overcome all the obstacles.
DEADLINE: Serhii is also an activist, did you feel like kindred spirits?
SENTSOV: Well, we are very different people. At the same time, we share the same values about democracy and the rule of law. We believe that we should stand up against Russian aggression. We both want to see Ukraine as a strong and independent country.
DEADLINE: The film has some large-scale scenes – was that tricky during the pandemic?
SENTSOV: It was extremely hard to follow all the rules imposed during a pandemic, but we knew that it was the only right approach. We couldn’t let people get sick. We got tested regularly, following all the recommendations and regulations.
DEADLINE: It sounds like an ambitious project, how did you and your producer get the budget?
SENTSOV: Rhino was created as a co-production of Ukraine (Arthouse Traffic, Cry Cinema), Poland (Apple Film Production) and Germany (Ma.ja.de.). The film was supported by Ukrainian State Film Agency, Eurimages Fund, Polish Film Institute and German film fund Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg.
DEADLINE: What is it like being a filmmaker in Ukraine? It has been a notably difficult period for the country, and that typically has a profound effect on art – one the one hand, people can be inspired to make great art, and on the other hand, it can become more challenging to make art, particularly because of a lack of funding. How do you navigate that?
SENTSOV: I grew up in this country and I am familiar with all the peculiarities that are possible here. Still, the Ukrainian movie industry is developing. I spent the last week at the Odesa International Film Festival and the national competition was just great. Of course, when you have the ongoing war in a country then art may not look like priority number one. I just love one story about Winston Churchill. When he was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he simply replied, ‘then what are we fighting for?’