Odesa International Film Festival supports imprisoned director Sentsov

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Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov could not attend the Odesa International Film Festival this year. He is imprisoned in Russia.

But at every film screening in Odesa, organizers reserved a spot for him. That empty seat became a symbol of Ukraine’s support for Sentsov and hope for his release.

Sentsov, 41, was arrested in Crimea in 2014, after Russia invaded and occupied the peninsula. He was later subjected to a deeply flawed trial, sentenced to 20 years, and imprisoned in the frigid Russian north.

Sentsov has been on hunger strike since May 14 demanding that the Russian authorities release all Ukrainian political prisoners.

Both the Ukrainian and international film communities have joined together in support of Sentsov, and visitors to the Odesa film festival are no exception.

Sentsov was previously a regular attendee and presented his films at the festival. Alik Shpilyuk, the program advisor of the festival, describes Sentsov as a friend of the event.

He admits that demonstrations and public speeches may have little influence on Russian president Vladimir Putin, who Shpilyuk believes is the only one who can make a decision on Sentsov’s fate. However, he believes Sentsov’s supporters must continue raising the issue.

“It’s important so that the world doesn’t forget about it,” he told the Kyiv Post. “Because if someone forgets about it, the problem will disappear.”

“The wider and louder the actions and the more noticeable they are, the more likely they are to influence some politicians who can probably influence that one subhuman,” Shpilyuk said, referring to Putin.

Ukrainian actress Rimma Zyubina keeps in touch with Sentsov via letters and has expressed her support for him publicly many times.

She says that the Ukrainian film community is very concerned about Sentsov and other political prisoners in Russia.

“There is a great solidarity inside the Ukrainian film community and we all support each other,” Ziubina told the Kyiv Post.

“And all the actions that are organized are done very sincerely, without extra pathos, without any buzzwords, because Oleg himself does not like this. He does not like it when he is called a hero.”

“He is very honest and sincere, such a very real guy. And this is what his deed proves because he does not ask for himself, he asks for the release of others,” Zyubina added.

Swedish director and film critic Gunnar Bergdahl, who is also a regular visitor to Ukraine, says that the international film community could do better to raise awareness about Sentsov’s imprisonment.

Bergdahl says that as a member of the European Film Academy, he has signed numerous petitions that demand Russia free Sentsov. He also asked the head of the Swedish Film Institute to take action, he said.

“We have a lot of platforms where this issue could be raised and it should be,” Bergdahl told the Kyiv Post.

He believes that Sentsov’s imprisonment should have been a bigger issue before the World Cup, held in Russia from June 14 to July 15. This indicates that not only filmmakers but also politicians must be involved in advocating for Sentsov.

“It’s time for some kind of political pressure,” Bergdahl said. “It would be better if governments protested.”

Text by Toma Istomina. Photo: Volodymyr Petrov.

Source: Kyiv Post