Oleg Sentsov Directs a Film from a Siberian Prison

March 2019 marks the five-year anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. We explain why the fake referendum in Crimea is called a "referendum by gun point" and provide background on Russia's annexation which had been in the works since the mid-2000s. The story of human rights abuses that continue to this day in Russian-occupied Crimea are told through the political prisoner Oleg Sentsov, a filmmaker kidnapped from Crimea and held in a Siberian penal colony on trumped up charges. Despite the harsh conditions, Sentsov defies the odds by continuing to produce art, including a feature film. His story is an urgent reminder to choose hope over despair. 

Andrea Chalupa: 00:11 Hi, it's Andrea Chalupa of Gaslit Nation, the show that looks at the threat of authoritarianism in the US and around the world. Today, we have a very special interview, but first some background: March, 2019 marks the fifth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Here's what happened. I'm going to read a short little overview now from USA Today. “Late February, 2014. Armed men assumed to be Russian troops or pro Russian militia, Stormed the Crimea parliament building and locked it down. Anatoly Mohyliov, the President of Crimea, who's a member of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, was ordered out. In a session not open to the public, the Crimea Parliament allegedly appointed Sergei Aksyonov as Prime Minister of Crimea. Aksyonov is a member of a small, obscure political group called the Russian Unity Party, which won too few votes in parliamentary elections in 2012 to win even one seat in Kyiv. This new parliament in Crimea voted to join the Russian Federation, setting March 16m, just two weeks later as a date for a referendum for voters in Crimea to decide the destiny of the peninsula. There is no provision in Ukraine’s constitution for such a vote.”

Alright, so what happens next? Russian special forces supported by pro-Russian militias continue to seize more government buildings. They seize Ukrainian military bases, Ukrainian navy ships and so forth. Six people are killed. Several are kidnapped and tortured. The hastily organized referendum by the fake Crimean parliament gave only two options on the ballot, which are pretty much both the same: vote to join Russia immediately or gain even greater autonomy within Ukraine. Crimea had a lot of autonomy to begin with. And did I mention there was a Kremlin clown car of so called election observers, conspiracy theorists from across Europe, who came in to try to give this fake referendum an air of legitimacy. And then of course you had these so called little green men, the Russian special forces who conveniently left the Russian flag off their uniforms as they patrolled the streets.

Andrea Chalupa: 02:19 This is why we call it a referendum by gunpoint. It was not a legal referendum in Crimea by any measure. This was an occupation done swiftly because as it turns out, the Kremlin had this plan in place for years since the mid-2000s. That's according to former Kremlin insiders and military specialists, as reported by the Moscow Times. And guess what? Guess whose work also makes a special appearance in Crimea back in the mid-2000s? Paul Manafort. According to Times of London, Manafort organized anti-NATO demonstrations in Crimea in 2006. Then in 2016, while running for President, Manafort's client, Donald Trump, supports Russia's invasion of Crimea saying in an interview, “you know, the people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.” Well, let's hear from the Crimean people. One such former resident of Crimea is the filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. Sentsov was a rising star in European filmmaking and his first feature, Gamer, which won a major award at Rotterdam Film Festival––that's a huge achievement. That's a launching pad for a filmmaker. He was on his way. He was about to work with producer, Mike Downey, on his next film. It's a miracle to get a film made. It's an exceptional miracle to get a film made in a country with limited resources like Ukraine. The success of the international stage of Oleg Sentsov would have trickled back to Ukrainians on the ground, helping lift them up as well, as Oleg likes to work with Ukrainian crews and actors. This was a big opportunity for human potential to grow in a country that needs success stories like this, but it was cut short when Russian special forces kidnapped Oleg to Russia, put him on a farce trial on trumped up charges of terrorism based on the forced confessions of two people under torture, and sentenced Oleg, who was also tortured, to 20 years in prison.

Andrea Chalupa: 04:21 All of this because Oleg Sentsov was an activist for Euromaidan, the popular uprising that overthrew the Kremlin's puppet, Yanukovych. Oleg went on a hunger strike for 145 days to demand the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners inside Russia. There are over 70 Ukrainian political prisoners, plus the two dozen sailors recently captured by Russia's open attack on Ukraine in international waters last November. In October, 2017, I moderated a discussion in New York City hosted by PEN international featuring Masha Lakina of the Russian protest rock group, Pussy Riot, who was a political prisoner for two years in Russia. And also Natalia Kaliada of the Belarus Free Theater. They were in New York staging a powerful play on resistance called Burning Doors, which featured the story of Oleg Sentsov. I asked Masha of Pussy Riot in our discussion whether Oleg Sentsov, in any way, could continue making art inside of Siberian prison. I had this naive hope that, somehow, Oleg could persevere because that is who he is. And if he could have the tenacity to direct a successful feature film then maybe he could find a way to create while unjustly trapped. Here's a portion of that discussion:

Andrea Chalupa: 05:34 As an artist, Oleg Sentsov was a young man, he was entering his fine. He made movies. It's extremely difficult to make one film. He made movies and he’s being recognized across Europe. What, for him as an artist––he needs to make art, that's who he is. Like, what is available to him as an artist inside of a Siberian prison system? What can he do as an artist based on what your experience is from being in that prison system?

Masha Lakina: There’s no possibility to make movies inside [inaudible], only in your mind. So, the Russian prison system, uh, is copying the Soviet prison system. So we don't have prisoners, we have penal colonies, which is like [inaudible]. And Oleg Sentsov was sent to [inaudible] the first year. It’s in Siberia. It's near China. And regarding [inaudible], it’s one of the hardest regimes in Russia because they have about minus 50 or 60 celsius in the Winter and they almost don't have Summer. It's a long conversation about conditions in Russian prisons, in penal colonies, but it’s not possible to spend there 20 years, at all. I mean, it's, um, if not for health, it's a risk for life. Now, he was transported even more North after, I think, our action in August. But, uh, I should say that now I think it's time for really campaigning for him.

Andrea Chalupa: 07:41 It turns out Oleg Sentsov can make a film, even from a Siberian penal colony. While in Berlin for the Berlin Film Festival, I sat down with his producer, Anna Palenchuk, to discuss Oleg's upcoming feature film, Numbers. Numbers is the story of a group of numbers struggling against an authoritarian system. Anna walked me through how she manages to make a film with a political prisoner in a remote corner of the world while their emails are being closely monitored, and having to keep elements of the project secret due to security risks. If Oleg Sentsov can direct a film that he wrote from a Siberian prison, then we have no excuse but to work for democracy, for freedom of speech, for freedom of expression, in our own corners of the world. Keep Oleg Sentsov in mind next time you lose hope or feel daunted. Instead, choose hope, and take full advantage of the relative freedoms and resources that you have to make this world a little bit better than you found it.

Andrea Chalupa: Tell me about your project with Oleg Sentsov.

Anna Palenchuk: 08:42 Actually, Oleg Sentsov, he's my friend, I know him around six years. I met him in Odessa Film Festival. And so we helped each other a lot when he lived in Kyiv and when he lived in Moscow, we met each other several times. When the Russians arrested Oleg Sentsov and when he were in jail, I decided to make something for him, and in a few months I organized Ukrainian Film Days to support Oleg Sentsov in the 10 Ukrainian cities, then it was in Georgia in Tbilisi, Ukrainian Film Days to support Oleg Sentsov, in Berlin, also, in different European countries as well. We also did film events which show his film and [other] Ukrainian films. There was a lot of public discussion about his case. Then I published his novel, and now it's translated to English, to German and to Polish languages. Then I published another book, a book about him, and last year in spring, I ask him what I can make more for him, because all of this, um, Film Days, um, books, et cetera, I was thinking that it should be like new wave of how we can support him.

Anna Palenchuk: 10:08 And he asked me to produce his theatrical play "Numbers". He wrote, uh, numbers, uh, in 2011 [year]. And it was his dream that this theatrical performance can be a part of a theater and a lot of audience can see this theatrical performance. I told him if it's important for him, I'll try to make it. But unfortunately, I'm not a theatrical producer. I'm a film producer. That's why I decided, when we started to develop a theatrical performance and preparation, I decided to propose him to make a film adaptation of this. I saw that we can make it in the film stage, probably with the same actors, which involve in our theatrical performance for Bulla [inaudible] with the same team. And uh, he told me like, oh, it's a good idea. Probably. A film adaptation could have a bigger audience than a theatrical performance.

Anna Palenchuk: 11:14 Of course it's logical to make it. And then, um, I ask him to be a film director. I describe him, uh, that, uh, we can be in contact with him or through special electronic system in Russia, which help to get connection with people who are in jail. It's like electronic letter, electronic mail, which I sent and then he sent it to me. But of course all our mail goes to [inaudible] first.

Andrea Chalupa: Who is that?

Anna Pelenchuk: [inaudible] is different guys in the Russian Federation who is reading our mail and who can delete something from these mails if it's about war conflict or about political system or about Putin or something like that. But of course when I'm writing mail to Oleg, I always keep in my mind what I'm writing and how they can, you know, describe this in Russian Federation. Yes. But all our communication, it's only about our project. So it's not about political or of our conflict.

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Andrea Chalupa: 12:23 Do you feel any disruption in your communication? Do you think maybe they might delete emails just to make it harder for you to communicate, even if it's about your project?

Anna Palenchuk: 12:33 A few emails, unfortunately, Oleg didn't receive a few emails. Probably in these emails they, you know, discovered, something which are forbidden for them, but still we are in contact the whole time. And then, um, actually in Summer, Oleg wrote to me an email that, uh, he wants to direct by himself this film adaptation of theatrical performance "Numbers". My answer were like, “okay Oleg, if you would like to be a film director, you will be a film director. Please write a statement to Odessa International Film Festival where we pitched this project, uh, last Summer, and please make what always do film directors. I mean, we decided who can be involved in our project, like our director or camera man or actors. Yes. And then, um, during development, our project, uh, Oleg really involved in every part. He was in contact with costume director. He was in contact with our director [inaudible] Chuhalov. He was in contact with prop master, Ivan. He sent to him pictures. So, we sent Oleg pictures with all props, with all costumes...

Andrea Chalupa: 13:59 Like the costume design?

Anna Palenchuk: 14:02 Yeah, we send it Oleg and we sent to him sketches of our set design. Everything that was inside our frame, Oleg agree with it. But in the end of August, when Oleg realized he will not get freedom and all other Ukrainian political prisoners for whom he were in hunger strike are not be not freedom.

Anna Palenchuk: 14:31 Oleg asked me to find co-director, somebody who can make possible film during pre-production, production and post production period. And he chose Atem [inaudible]. It is a Crimean Tatar film director who lived in Ukraine, of course. And uh, they were friends before Oleg was arrested and Atem [XXX], he involved in our project and it was a new, like a new wave of our development, because Atem [XXX], he's wonderful. He's one of the famous Ukrainian directors who follow all Oleg's advice. And he agreed with Oleg's choice.

Andrea Chalupa: 15:16 That's incredible. Where is he based? Where is all this happening?

Anna Palenchuk: 15:21 Our production happened in the Kyiv. Our director of photography, Adam Sikora came from Poland. He is one of the famous Polish cinematographers and [inaudible], our art director, he came from Europe. But, we got a Ukrainian custom. Our language in the film in the Ukrainian language. But Oleg wrote this play in Russian language, but he agreed that we translate it to Ukrainian. For me, it's important to show to him what we have. Actually, for me, his case, it's a really important case, because, um, it is a proof that art and artists can be free even without freedom. That he can continue his creative life, even in this really bad condition where he is now. Because, uh, during his hunger strike and after it, like three months, he was in some specific medicine part of the jail. He was alone in his room and now he’s with other prisoners. And Oleg's jail, it's a really awful jail. Uh, minus 60 [Celsius] there outside. Yes.

Andrea Chalupa: 16:53 Minus 60 degrees Celsius?

Anna Palenchuk: 16:55 Yes. Because it is out of polar circle.

Andrea Chalupa: 16:58 In Siberia?

Anna Palenchuk: 17:01 Yes, In Siberia. But he wants to create. He wants to make films, he wants to write books and it's proof that he is not a terrorist, as Putin think. He is a creative person who should have freedom and not sit [in] jail.

Andrea Chalupa: 17:19 What is "Numbers" about?

Anna Palenchuk: 17:21 Uh, "Numbers"? Uh, it's [inaudible]. Uh, it's about a society where existed 10 numbers from one to ten. The leaves in order to strict rules, which great for them. Zero number and these zero numbers a number. It's like God, he leaves under all other numbers and suddenly they found a baby. Uh, nobody don't know where this baby came from. And this baby starts to be 11 number in this society. And uh, they have a ritual, they eat in the same time, they're writing in the same time, they go to bed in the same time. When they found this baby, they started to feel emotional, emotions, which they didn't feel before ‘cause they start to love this baby. And some Numbers decided to build new rules and a new world. And they start to fight with zero number.

Andrea Chalupa: 18:27 He started to take on God?

Anna Palenchuk: 18:28 Yes. And I think that the story now, it is so actual story, which shows the border of freedom and how we could understand our own freedom. And I think that it is a really important story for Oleg because he's fighting for freedom. How, I think, numbers are fighting for their freedom, also. And some numbers actually, they’re fighting not to be numbers. They’re fighting to get the names.

Andrea Chalupa: 19:04 So they no longer want to be numbers. They want to have names.

Anna Palenchuk: Yes.

Andrea Chalupa: And why is that important to them? To have names?

Anna Palenchuk: 19:10 Because it is their identity. Because probably, it is so simple to be just a number, not to have your own voice, or not to fight for something, just to be like a mass, but, uh, numbers, uh, in our screenplay, they understand there should be a new order with more freedom.

Andrea Chalupa: 19:35 How is Oleg doing now?

Anna Palenchuk: 19:38 Oleg, he came back to his weight. Actually, he feels really good, I think. He's involved in the project, of course. I expect that he will give his new novels, which he wrote in the prison and we will publish these novels.

Andrea Chalupa: 19:59 How many novels did he write?

Anna Palenchuk: 20:02 We will see. We will see. He wrote several novels there and he wrote several scripts in the prison. So he continues his creative way.

Andrea Chalupa: 20:15 How is it possible that he has the resources: pen, paper, computer, in a Siberian prison? The guards are allowing this to happen, clearly?

Anna Palenchuk: 20:26 Unfortunately, he doesn't have a computer. Our communication happened like this: I fill out a special form on website [inaudible] letter. And then my letter comes to his jail through [inaudible]. Yes. They print my letter in a physical paper and they give my letter, like in print format to him. Then, I always mark that I would like to get answer from Oleg Sentsov. That's why I'm paying always more for this letter, and for all letters, actually. We always pay.

Andrea Chalupa: 21:05 How much do you pay?

Anna Palenchuk: 21:06 Usually it is like $3 or $4 per one. The mail. And then with my, um, mail, he got empty paper, which is special for this electronic system. Where exists my name and his name, where exist a special number of this letter and he's handwriting a letter to me. And then he gives it to [inaudible]. [inaudible] is reading, then he scan it. And then uh, it comes to my email.

Andrea Chalupa: So when he's in prison writing novels, he's doing it by hand?

Anna Palenchuk: Yeah, he's doing it by hand. Of course, he doesn't have a computer. He would like to have a computer, but it's impossible to have a computer in jail in Russia.

Andrea Chalupa: 21:56 But they give him pen and paper?

Anna Palenchuk: 21:59 Yes, yes, yes, thank God, they gave it to him. That's why he can create still.

Andrea Chalupa: 22:05 And how do the guards treat him? Are they––what is his relationship like with his prison guards?

Anna Palenchuk: 22:11 Actually Mitro Deanza, his lawyer, told me that Oleg, he lives in a jail but he is not follow all what happened in the jail. He is a strong man and he built like a very strong relationship with all guards in the jail. That’s why, actually, I think that he is more independent than others. Of course he's follow all these rituals which exist in the jail. I mean that uh, this time or they have a breakfast or lunch or dinner or go out. Uh, yes. Um, or, some work. But of course it's hard to be there, and to spend all day like previous days. But things got, he has a time for his writing and creating something. And he has time to understand what we're doing in our film project and realize and get back to us with answers regarding some props or costumes or something, which we always discuss with him.

Andrea Chalupa: 23:34 Has he seen his children at all since he's been in prison?

Anna Palenchuk: 23:37 No, I know that he could make a call. Somebody he's calling to his children, they are in the Crimea. Of course, they miss him because um, he always, he had really close connection with his, uh, children, and I hope that soon they will see him.

Andrea Chalupa: 24:00 Do you know what's next in his case, what sort of movements he can make to try to petition for his release?

Anna Palenchuk: 24:08 I think next moment will be when our film will be released, because it will be proof that uh, he's a creative person and he should continue his creative way in our world. Yes. To be a writer, to be a film director. He will choose whom he would like to be, but most important, that he should get freedom. And for me actually, his case, it's a case which shows us a continue of our history. Because, the same war with my grandfather in 13th, uh, previous century in Ukraine was a lot of talented people who were fighting in that moment with Stalin. And now he's fighting was Putin. And I think that for all of us, it is really good case when we can tell to ourselves, what are we going to do in this life? What is freedom for us? And why it's so important that we understand that somebody don't have freedom, doesn't have a freedom. Now it's so quiet about Oleg Sentsov. Yes. But I think that in a few months will be new moment when we will tell our news with the film.

Andrea Chalupa: 25:43 And how can people watch Oleg Sentsov’s other films, like Gamer, which won a big award in I think as Rotterdam. How can we see Gamer,

Anna Palenchuk: 25:54 I think in YouTube there exists "Gamer" with English subtitles.

Andrea Chalupa: 25:59 How could we see Numbers when it comes out?

Anna Palenchuk: 26:01 I think in one of the big [film] festivals, and then in other film festivals, then I hope that there will be distribution in different countries. And then of course we'll think about digital distribution.

Andrea Chalupa: 26:13 Is there a way for us to follow your film on Facebook or Twitter?

Anna Palenchuk: 26:19 Yeah. On Facebook there exists our page "Numbers", and please follow, and we will create a Twitter account of course, uh, to give more information to [the] World about our project.

Andrea Chalupa: 26:33 Great. So we can just go on Facebook and search Oleg Sentsov and "Numbers" film.

Andrea Chalupa: 26:41 And so I'm so inspired by this and all the work you've done for your friend all these years. My grandfather, like your grandfather, was arrested during Stalin's purges in the 1930s, and I think for so many of us who've had family that have suffered under Stalin, of course it feels surreal and terrifying and heartbreaking to see this history repeating again today under Putin.

Anna Palenchuk: 27:05 Yes, this is the same history for me, that's why it's so important now to fight for freedom for Oleg Sentsov.

Andrea Chalupa: 27:12 Thank you so very much for this interview, and I know you're going to inspire so many audiences with your work and your film and the world thinks you for standing up for freedom.

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Andrea Chalupa