Ukrainian Director-Turned-Soldier Oleh Sentsov Discusses War

The Ukrainian writer-director Oleh Sentsov is not going to be on the Venice Movie Pageant this yr; or the one in Sofia, Bulgaria; or the one in Istanbul; or any of the others the place his movie Rhino is premiering. After I met Sentsov in Kyiv, it wasn’t as a filmmaker however reasonably as a soldier. My practice from Lviv arrived late, after curfew, and the police knowledgeable me that no matter my press move, I must sleep within the station. Finally I used to be capable of hitch a journey to my lodge with the Crimson Cross, however, within the strategy of attempting to keep away from an evening on the ground of the station, a buddy put me in contact with Sentsov, who was close by and provided to assist. This was how I discovered myself having breakfast with him in a basement restaurant the next morning. I used to be inquisitive about speaking about Rhino, which I hadn’t but seen. He was much more inquisitive about speaking in regards to the battle.

Sentsov, like many Ukrainians, was wanting to level out that Russia’s present assault on Ukraine is just an escalation of a battle it has waged since 2014, when it annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas. That yr, Russian authorities arrested Sentsov, a local of Crimea, on costs of “suspicion of plotting terrorist acts.” He was sentenced to twenty years and shipped to an Arctic jail. He endured torture and, to protest his circumstances, survived a 145-day starvation strike. After 5 years, the Russians launched him in a prisoner swap.

As we sat within the restaurant, Sentsov introduced up a map on his cellphone’s partially shattered display screen. He pointed to Hostomel, a suburb of Kyiv close to the Dnipro River. The unit within the territorial-defense forces of which he’s deputy commander includes about 75 troopers. After I requested him his rank—lieutenant, captain, main—he stated he didn’t have one. After I requested him his unit’s designation—a platoon, an organization, or perhaps a battalion—he stated they merely known as themselves “a squad.” Rank and formal navy phrases weren’t one thing they fearful about. “We don’t need organization in that way,” he defined. “What matters is that each person does their part against the orcs.”

Each aspect in battle chooses a derogatory identify for its adversary, and the Ukrainians appear to have settled on theirs for the Russians. There’s additionally, in battle, a phenomenon by which names of strange locations assume exalted standing once they develop into synonymous with battlefield victories. As Sentsov traced final month’s combating north of Kyiv on his cellphone, just a few of the neighborhoods he identified—Irpin, Moschun, Horenka—have been already turning into a part of this lexicon of valor. Sentsov stated he was unsurprised by the Russian navy’s poor efficiency. “Some of our volunteers in the territorial defense,” he famous, “served in the Soviet army, in Afghanistan. We know what the Russians are and are not capable of.”

Sentsov had a nasty cough. He apologized, attributing it to many weeks spent sleeping in a trench within the chilly. “One of the lessons you learn as a soldier,” he stated, “is that your first weapon is not a rifle; it’s a spade.” After I requested what else soldiering had taught him, he laughed. “To survive in war, you have to learn many lessons very quickly. But the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that the real face of war, its true face, is one you can’t read about or watch on the news. You must see it with your own eyes.”

Conveying battle’s true face seemed like an amazing problem for a filmmaker, and shortly Sentsov and I have been discussing the battle movies directed by Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone, and Francis Ford Coppola, which captured one thing genuine and enduring. The best movies about battle, he famous, have been sometimes made lengthy after the wars they portrayed. “You need time,” he added, “to separate from the events. You should only shoot about things you know well, and you must do so with a calm head—not a calm heart—but a calm head.”

Rhino, Sentsov’s newest, takes its title from the movie’s eponymous protagonist, a younger Ukrainian gangster whose nickname derives from the bruises and welts, earned in road brawls, that—in keeping with his associates—have develop into a everlasting fixture on his face, just like the horn of a rhinoceros. It’s a coming-of-age story, set in the course of the wild and hedonistic post-Communist ’90s, after Ukraine’s independence.

Sentsov insisted it wasn’t a political movie. Nevertheless, in almost the identical breath, he defined that to know Vladimir Putin, one should perceive each the ’80s and ’90s, a long time that respectively embody two sides of Putin’s psyche. Within the ’80s, Putin served as a KGB officer, a rule-bound instrument of the state. Within the ’90s, Putin was, Sentsov claimed, a St. Petersburg gangster, like Rhino. Within the movie, when Rhino displays on the trajectory of different gangsters’ careers, he observes, “The sly ones became politicians.”

It’s tough to not learn politics into Rhino’s struggling too, which at instances appears analogous to Ukraine’s and, the extra I realized of Sentsov’s story, his personal. Whereas Sentsov was in custody, he says, Russian authorities tortured him; nevertheless, when confronted by Sentsov’s legal professionals, the Russians refused to open an investigation into the allegations, suggesting that Sentsov’s wounds have been self-inflicted and that he was a sadomasochist. In Rhino, there are ugly scenes of torture I’d reasonably not describe. Watching them, I felt as if I have been watching Sentsov indict his torturers.

We spent the remainder of the morning discussing battle’s literature. One in all Sentsov’s favorites is “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” by J. D. Salinger, a brief story a few traumatized fight veteran of the Second World Struggle. Sentsov famous that, other than this story, Salinger wrote little in regards to the battle, and that his legacy isn’t certainly one of a battle author. I provided a unique interpretation of Salinger—who landed on D-Day, fought within the Hürtgen Forest, and helped liberate Dachau. I’ve at all times maintained that Salinger wrote maybe the best novel of World Struggle II, The Catcher within the Rye, however he did so by dealing with his topic obliquely. Holden Caulfield’s voice, for which the novel is famend, is the voice of a battle veteran, to whom everyone seems to be “a phony” and who needs to go to the geese in Central Park to get better an innocence that may by no means return and maybe by no means was. The novel’s final traces—“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody”—are the quintessential sentiment of a fight veteran marked by loss.

Sentsov stated he additionally preferred The Catcher within the Rye, however that “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” remained his favourite. He pulled up the map on his cellphone once more, this time displaying me not battlefield positions, however reasonably neighborhoods round downtown Ukraine the place I may nonetheless see the posters for Rhino, those promoters had plastered up in anticipation of its launch, earlier than the Russian invasion. He confirmed me {a photograph} of himself in a tuxedo standing on a crimson carpet in entrance of certainly one of these posters, his date on his arm, the 2 of them smiling for the cameras. “This was at the Kyiv premiere,” he stated. After I requested when that was, he stared up on the ceiling, as if assembling a puzzle of recollections. “Five, six weeks ago.”

“Do you think you’ll ever make a film about the war?” I requested.

He stated he wasn’t positive; he wanted distance. He joked that maybe he’d wind up like Salinger and make a movie in regards to the battle by making a movie about one thing else fully.

“When the war’s over,” I stated, “I hope you make a film about it.”

Then he corrected me. “We don’t say, ‘When the war is over.’ That’s not the language we use. We say, ‘After the victory.’” He coughed once more. “Right now, I’m not thinking about films. I’m not a filmmaker. I’m a soldier until the victory.”

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