Valeria Jegisman of Free Russia Foundation caught up with Maxim Tuula, producer of “The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov,” during his recent visit to Washington, to talk about the film, the international campaign to support the political prisoner, attitudes towards his case in Russia, and the current state of Sentsov’s health.
The film was released about 1.5 years ago. While you were working on it, you probably had your goals and expectations. Do you feel you have achieved them? Apart from Oleg still being in jail.
When we were making this film we wanted to bring the message about Oleg Sentsov’s case to the widest international audience possible. After a premiere in Berlin, some Russian film critics – friends of ours – told us they didn’t really like the film because they expected more. Since most of them support Oleg Sentsov and know a lot about his case, they expected some kind of revelations. But we didn’t make the film for them. We made it for people who don’t know about Oleg’s case. We wanted to make an internationally relatable film to explain everything and I think it works.
In terms of creativity, I don’t know – for the sophisticated taste it’s not an intricate arthouse film. It’s too simple for that, but we had to choose one way or another. I asked Natalia, Oleg Sentsov’s cousin, whether she liked the film or not, and she said she didn’t think about it in artistic terms, but that it is an important tool to help Oleg’s cause.
However, after our premiere in Berlin, Netflix was looking at the film and whether to take it and they decided not to. And a lot of European channels didn’t take it. They said the film is not relevant to their audiences because it’s Ukraine, and no one knows who Oleg Sentsov is. That is unfortunate.
So it must have come as a disappointment?
Of course we were disappointed because we wanted to make it as big as possible. But we are trying, maybe things will change. When we were making the film, we started a publicity campaign where we recorded messages from European, Russian, and Ukrainian filmmakers to support Oleg’s release. But it was really hard to get feedback from their American counterparts.
Many of them said that they had never heard anything about it and asked why they should care about a Ukrainian filmmaker? Something changed when Johnny Depp joined another global campaign, Imprisoned for Art, and supported Oleg Sentsov. And thanks to Pen America awareness of Oleg’s case has risen in the States.
After the hunger strike began, the American media started writing more about Sentsov, especially after Masha Gessen, the Russian-American journalist, wrote about him in the New Yorker. Her participation in our film screening in New York a few weeks ago attracted a lot of interest and it helped raise awareness.
It seems to me that the international campaign has been quite prominent and far-reaching. A lot of people, including from film industry and international organizations, support Oleg Sentsov’s case. But what is less prominent is political support. What do you think about this and what else can civil society do to put more pressure on politicians?
The Institute of Documentary Film in Prague asked me what they could do to help – should they write an open letter to the Russian Minister of Culture, or to President Putin? But I told them they [Russian authorities] don’t care about you. The only thing you can do is try to make an impact by talking to your politicians, who in turn may try to influence Putin.
French President Emmanuel Macron raised the issue of Oleg’s case during his recent visit to Russia, probably because the French intelligentsia exerted pressure by signing a letter in support of Oleg. Yet it did not lead to any results because Putin was not interested. The president of European Council, Donald Tusk, issued a statement calling for the release of Oleg because our Polish co-producer Dariusz Jablonski and director Agnieszka Holland wrote a letter to Tusk. But again, it didn’t have any effect.
The Czech Institute of Documentary Film asked me what they could do to help and I said the same thing: you need to write the politicians. They showed Oleg’s own film, Gamer, and our film about Oleg at a festival in Karlovy Vary and then wrote an open letter on behalf of all the Czech filmmaking associations to the Czech Parliament, which eventually took up the matter. But again these were cultural figures raising the issue, not the parliament itself.
Of course, there are politicians who are very active in supporting Oleg – for example, the former Bundestag member Marieluise Beck, who even came to our Berlin premiere and was an active participant of our other German screenings. Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid also took part in the interantional campaign and she held a #FreeSenstov sign in her hands – but I wish there were more of them.
Putin will not listen to the Institute of Documentary Film, but he might listen to someone who has an impact on Russian or international politics. So, high-level politicians could probably influence Putin, but he would want to get something in return.
Did you expect that the World Cup would bring more attention to Oleg Sentsov’s case?
This is what Sentsov was hoping for when he started the hunger strike. He started his hunger strike just few weeks before the World Cup to attract attention to the Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Our friends in Moscow were handing out leaflets to the soccer fans who came to Russia. We thought that if even five out of a hundred fans took the leaflets, and started to think about it, then that’s something. Unfortunately, nothing happened. The World Cup and the case of Oleg Sentsov turned out to be two different universes, not really connected to each other. But let’s see what happens after the end of the World Cup, there is still hope that Putin will do something.
In the film, Oleg Sentsov says that the majority of the population in Russia believes the state propaganda, but one-third understands what is really going on. So the majority of people believe that Oleg is guilty, but there are those who try to stand up for him in Russia. It must take courage to do that in Russia. How do you assess the support for Oleg in Russia?
Well, I think one-third is an exaggeration and that it’s much fewer people, but still this is the thinking part of the Russian population, people who really question the order of things. The Russian filmmakers, they continue to support Sentsov because they feel the blame is partly on them since this is their government who is doing this, yet they can’t do anything about it.
There is a documentary made by Radio Liberty that shows activists handing out leaflets about Oleg to people on the streets of Moscow. Many people don’t take the leaflets, those who do don’t really want to know anything about it. They also say they won’t take one because he is Ukrainian. When they see the word Ukraine, they don’t even read it because it is the enemy – they are so brainwashed.
But the worst part is when people clearly understand what is going on, but close their eyes to this injustice.
Do you think they are just afraid to stand up, or that they just don’t care?
They are not afraid, they work for the regime. They support Putin, if it works for Putin, injustice is not a problem to them. Maybe some people are afraid, but I don’t think fear is the main factor here.
Once I happened to have a conversation with a former FSB officer who said it’s Sentsov’s own fault because he didn’t have to stick out. He clearly realizes Oleg is not a terrorist and that it’s a show trial. But it’s normal to him, it is normal to many people. It’s all right to have this kind of injustice if it has a purpose. And for me that is the worst part.
How is Oleg Sentsov’s health at the moment, do you keep in touch with him?
It is deteriorating, of course, because it’s been 61 days. At this point, the changes in your body become irreversible. Even if he stops the hunger strike, he may not fully recover. He has lost about 20 kilograms and his health is clearly deteriorating.
I’m going to ask a difficult question and you don’t have to answer it. Do you think Oleg did the right thing to go on a hunger strike?
It is his choice and I respect it. There is a discussion among Russian filmmakers about whether we should ask for a pardon from Putin or should not because we have to respect his decision. I respect his choice, and I wouldn’t convince him to stop. I wouldn’t do it myself because my family just wouldn’t let me, because it is a serious risk I would be taking. But he is absolutely convinced he is going to win and I hope Oleg will win. In any case, he has achieved what he was trying to do. He has brought attention to the issue of Ukrainian political prisoners, but if he has to pay with his life – it is a very high price.
Maxim Tuula is an Estonian film producer whose work also includes “My Friend Boris Nemtsov.” The interview with Tuula took place on 13 July 2018. Photo credits: snapshot from “The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov,” and Alexei Salomatov