Ukrainian director Oleh Sentsov will mark the second anniversary of his release from Russian imprisonment this month as his new film, “Rhino,” plays in the closing slot in the Horizons section at the Venice Film Festival.
Sentsov, who was seized by Russian security officials after the annexation of Ukraine’s Black Sea Crimea territory in 2014 and flown to Russia to be put on trial at a military court on terrorism charges he vigorously denied, was sentenced to 20 years behind bars.
An international campaign for his freedom galvanized film industry people from Hollywood A-listers to European directors, such as Wim Wenders, and organizations that included the European Film Academy and PEN.
Now, after writing a hit Ukrainian book about his experiences and coming under pressure to go into politics, Sentsov is back in the place he feels most at ease in — making movies.
“Everyone waited for me to make political films about prison or Maidan [the name given to the Ukrainian uprising of 2014], but now I want to pursue a civilian life. My life as an activist and my internal creative life are two different things. I don’t want to confuse these two at the moment,” Sentsov tells Variety.
Speaking via a video call from Kiev, where he now lives, just after returning from the Odessa Film Festival, he adds: “The experience of imprisonment has still not finished. Russia still occupies our territories. For me these themes are still painful, so for now I won’t make films about those subjects.” That does not mean the 45-yearold director shies away from exploring painful subjects in “Rhino,” which, similar to his two previous films, “Gamer” (2011) and “Numbers” (2019, written in prison and filmed by friends), draw upon his general life experiences without being autobiographical.
Sentsov, who is self-taught as a filmmaker, acknowledges all the influences of the masters — he mentions the Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni and Lars von Trier, among others — but insists that his true influences are stories with which he has some familiarity. “I believe a director needs to make films about subjects of which he knows something or is familiar with.”