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It’s rare that the director becomes the story. But when Oleh Sentsov was arrested by Russian forces in Crimea in 2014 — he had been protesting Russia’s annexation of the region — the Ukraine filmmaker became a cause célèbre for the European film community. A Russian court found Sentsov guilty of “plotting terrorist acts” and sentenced him to 20 years’ imprisonment. Only a coordinated effort by the European Film Academy, Amnesty International and the European Parliament — acclaimed directors including Ken Loach, Pedro Almodóvar and Agnieszka Holland signed a letter to Russian authorities demanding Sentsov’s release — led to his freedom. On Sept. 7, 2019, five years after his arrest Sentsov and two dozen other Ukrainian inmates were released in a prisoner swap.
Sentsov got straight to work on Rhino, his third feature after his well-received debut Gamer (which premiered in Rotterdam in 2011) and Numbers, a sci-fi drama adapted from his own play, which he completed while in prison through an email collaboration with fellow Ukraine director Akhtem Seitablayev, who shot the movie. Numbers premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last year.
Rhino, which Sentsov had planned to shoot before his arrest, is into his, and his country’s, recent past. The crime drama follows the rise and fall of a violent delinquent — the Rhino of the title — who finds success in the criminal underworld that fills the power void in 1990s Ukraine left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rhino premieres Sept. 10 in the Horizons section of the 2021 Venice Film Festival. WestEnd Films is handling worldwide sales. Sentsov talked with THR about what he hopes to achieve with Rhino and how his time in prison impacted him personally and as an artist.
Were you ready to shoot Rhino before your arrest and imprisonment? How did your time in jail impact the project?
First of all, I need to thank all those people from the movie industry who supported me while I was in prison. Their support and the advocacy campaign, all that international support, was crucially important in securing my release. But with Rhino, yes, basically, I wrote the script in 2011. It was my reflection on the early 1990s Ukraine after the Soviet Union collapsed and criminal bands and gangsters just took control of the country. There is no movie like this in Ukraine. This is the first one about this period in the 1990s. My idea was to show how cruel and bloody that time was, and [also] to reflect that through the experiences of a human being.
This movie is based on real events. It’s the story of one of my friends who I knew well at the time. All this stuff happened to him. My role in this was just to create the story around it. But I didn’t add any additional drama. It’s a story of a real person, about the terrible things he did. About his regrets and confession and his attempt to transform and live a completely different life. So yes, I spent more than five years in a Russian prison, but I can’t say it really impacted my script. The experience in a Russian prison and the criminal world of 1990s Ukraine are completely different worlds.
What impact did that time in prison have on you?
Of course, that experience, living in such hard circumstances like in a Russian prison, changes you. I’d like to believe that my spirit got stronger. I hope that I became a better person in terms of how I see the world.
Do you expect the experience to impact your work as a filmmaker, now that you have been politicized?
I am not a political person. I was captured in Crimea because I disagreed, I still disagree with the Russian annexation of Crimea. I stood up with my people because I want Crimea to be part of Ukraine. That was my political agenda. That is still my civic position. I still support my people who are still in Russian prison and hope they will be released. I still support an independent, strong and sovereign Ukraine. But my work is something completely different for me. With my films, I try to express my internal world. I try to divide those two parts: between my work as a director and my political and civic life. Maybe eventually I will feel ready to make a movie about the war in Ukraine, about what’s happening in Crimea or my imprisonment. But right now it is still too painful. I just have the distance to reflect on those events. It will take time for me to process. I realize that if I made a more political film, it might be easier for me to promote internationally. But that’s not my goal. I’m focused on making art. That’s what’s interesting for me.
The opening section of Rhino is quite phenomenal, where you quickly go through nearly 20 years of Ukraine history, taking the main character through his childhood in the 1980s through to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of his criminal career. Why did you choose to introduce this character and story that way?
I wanted to create a bit more space in a movie, to give the audience a better understanding of what was happening in Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed: what was before and what came after through the example of this one family. It was probably like this for almost everyone, and the situation made it possible for the criminal gangs to establish themselves. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we basically didn’t have a state anymore. There was no rule of law. It was very easy to use violence to quickly amass power and wealth. Maybe if we had had normal institutions with a democratic system, with the rule of law, there would have been other opportunities for a guy like Rhino. He could have become a policeman. He could have done something completely different with his life. But in Ukraine and in other post-Soviet countries, those opportunities didn’t exist.
You said this story is based on a friend of yours. How did you avoid the same fate?
First of all, I grew up in a good family, with loving and caring parents. And I read a lot. That really shaped me. I knew education would be my way out. First I studied economics before moving to filmmaking. Also, I never liked violence. I avoided it. Some people who watch this movie, which is very violent, might think I enjoy or support violence. It’s exactly the opposite. There’s a tendency now in Ukraine to view the ’90s with a certain romantic sentiment, that it was a time of opportunity. It was nothing like this. The people like Rhino lived a quick life, like a spark, but it usually ended badly. I think we need to reflect on that time, without romanticizing and without sentiment. That’s my goal.
Given that past, how hopeful are you about the future of your country?
I made this movie just to show how this criminal system was created in Ukraine and to basically show the audience how it was and how it happened. How we ended up with President Viktor Yanukovych, who came from this criminal world and became a part of Ukraine’s political system. To show why these people are still here, why there are such deep roots to the corruption. The 2014 revolution was a huge protest against people like Rhino, against those who shaped the 1990s, those who used violence as a tool and became the establishment, who took control of the government, of the police. The people stood up against this. We were able to break this system a bit, but not completely. Right now we feel a very strong pushback. Those people are still in places of power, like the police, like government bodies. We still have a lot to do. But I am very hopeful about Ukraine. I think there is a way for us to establish a rule of law and strong European values because there are so many people here who want this. My dream and my goal are that people like Rhino will become part of our past, part of our cinema and art — but no longer part of real life.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 3 daily issue at the Venice International Film Festival.
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