KYIV (Reuters) – Two years after his release from a Russian jail, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov will premiere his movie “Rhino” at the Venice Film Festival on Friday, a journey he said was “like a fairy tale”.
“I never thought that I would be released so soon and would be able to finally make my film and be here,” he said on a video call with Reuters from Venice.
“For me, it is not simply a dream come true, but it also means that I will be now treated as a film director.”
“Rhino” had been in the works for nearly a decade but production stopped when Sentsov was detained in Crimea in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula.
He was sentenced to 20 years in a maximum security prison on terrorism charges he says were trumped up. He went on a hunger strike and his fate became a rallying cry for Ukrainians in their stand-off with Russia over the annexation and Russia’s involvement in a separatist war in eastern Ukraine.
He won the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize in 2018 while still in jail and was released a year later as part of a landmark prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia.
His new film is set in 1990s Ukraine shortly after the break-up of the Soviet Union, a period known for the rise of organised crime, lawlessness and oligarchs. It is told through the personal story of the main character, a violent criminal.
Sentsov said it was important to reflect on that period in order to understand modern Ukraine.
“Those times traumatized our country very much,” he said. “We ourselves don’t even understand to what extent. Many people who have risen during those times now govern our country in this or that way,” he said. “They are from those times and the way they see the world is from those times too.”
The film was also a way of showing a Western audience what Ukrainians went through, he said.
“They have not experienced any of this,” he said. “That is why it is a chance for them to understand us better – why we have such problems, why we can’t make such a step forward.”
The main character, Rhino, is based on a real person whom Sentsov knew personally. Sentsov wanted to tackle what he saw as a sometimes romanticised view of the criminal world.
Rhino is played by amateur actor, war veteran and activist Serhii Filimonov. Choosing from dozens of former soccer fans, convicts, veterans and sportsmen, Sentsov looked for a person with a similar life experience as the main character.
(Editing by Matthias Williams and Mark Heinrich)