The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov
Regissør: Askold Kurov

The doubts surrounding the guilt issue appear in the dialogue between director Askold Kurov and Vladimir Putin: It is not even clear what crimes Oleg Sentsov should have committed.


"The biggest sin is cowardice." With this quote from Michail Bulgakov, Oleg Sentsov concludes his final post during the trial. Sentsov, a film director and Maidan activist born in Ukraine, was accused of leading an anti-Russian terrorist movement in Crimea during the events following the March 2014. Well-known filmmakers like Agnieszka Holland and Wim Wenders as well as the European Film Academy worked to get him released. But in August 2015, he was sentenced to 20 years in Siberia by a Russian court in Rostov by Don. In this documentary, Askold Kurov examines the context of the trial.

Multifaceted about Sentsov. Kurov's primary source for the footage is footage he has found: from Sentsov's own films, from various media representations of Sentsov and the events relating to the case, as well as material from Sentsov's family archive.

Among the photographs in the family albums are – as the mother cheerfully comments – "Sentsov's first photogram": a picture taken from above by his dog. "Or a cat," the mother notes. And truly, taken from above, every pet looks like an oval spot. Only representations from the page provide sufficient information to make the representation recognizable – not because of any inherent ingredient in the representation, but because we have learned it that way. This is a textbook demonstration that images are not things, and the awareness that the way we see things is linked to historical, social and cultural conditions is an underlying premise in this film.

Truth and justice. Askold Kurov trained as a documentary filmmaker at Marina Razbezhkina Film School in Moscow. In 2012, along with nine other colleagues, he spent two months filming people before the presidential election – their talks, demonstrations, victories and defeats. That's how they made a chronicle of Russia's winter protests with the talking title Winter, Go Away! (Hello, thank you!). His next movie Leni Country (2013) was a documentary about the abandoned Lenin Museum in the village of Gorky near Moscow. Children 404 (2014) document the consequences of Russian law prohibiting "propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations with minors" – forcing parents and friends of gay children to tell them that they are sick, sinful and abnormal. Officially, these teens do not exist, and if you search for them online, "Error 404" pops up.

The focus on human rights and social conflicts in today's Russia makes Kurov one of those contemporary documentaries who, regardless of his own risk, ensures that the public is constantly aware of the controversies in today's world. As both traditional mass media and social media plunge into the battle for popularity and the political game, these filmmakers' work is becoming increasingly important, but also increasingly difficult. The Trial and the fate of Sentsov testifies to just this.

The Ukrainian film director and Maidan activist Oleg Sentsov was sentenced in 2015 to 20 years in Siberia prison for anti-Russian terrorist activity in Crimea.

The autobiographical aspect of The Trial makes it even more complicated to balance between the volatile nature of human communication on the one hand and the pursuit of truth and justice on the other. Kurov handles this in a masterfully cold and precise way. Throughout the film, the same issues emerge several times and each time they are treated from a new perspective. This strategy is most visible in the treatment of the protagonist, director Sentsov himself. The spectator sees him from different angles: his own words, his old and new appearances in the media, his films, his enemies and friends, his lawyer, cousins ​​and mother. The film is structured as an investigation – almost as an attempt to reveal a hidden terrorist face to this original cartoonist, who became a businessman, then a storyteller, then a filmmaker and finally a political activist.

Sokurov. While the underlying doubt remains hidden most of the time, it comes to the fore in the dialogue between director Kurov and Russian President Vladimir Putin – where it is not even clear what crimes Sentsov is said to have committed. Kurov: "I beg you, a film director should fight against me at film festivals […]" Putin: "He is not convicted for his film production, but for another role […] He devoted his life to terrorist activities." Sokurov: "This was the most serious political collision. How could an ordinary person, a young man […] understand the complications of the political moment? " Here, Kurov possibly refers to Sentsov's activities after Russia took Crimea in April 2014, when he began helping Ukrainian soldiers and their families – actions that from Russia's point of view can be considered terrorism, while Kurov tries to present them as a misjudgment in a complex historical moment. However, President Putin refuses to talk about it: "It is not about his views […] It is about his intentions and preparations for wrongdoing that could be detrimental to our citizens."

The cynicism becomes even clearer when Kurov begins to ask Putin to set aside the law: "It is typically Russian and Christian to put grace above the law. I beg you […] Please. ” Putin responds calmly, with a smile, and defends the law: "We can not behave Russian and Christian in this situation without a judicial decision." The court, we learn during the film, convicted Sentsov as a terrorist on the basis of a confession made under pressure and his film collection with, among others, Soviet director Mikhail Romm's anti-fascist classic Ordinary Fascism (1965)

Regime criticism between the lines. What the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek describes as "the inherent cynicism of power" developed during the communist regime and still prevails in today's Russia – that is, an illusory and shameless realism that criticizes idealistic and ideological grounds. This was and is a serious challenge for those who want to oppose the regime. One of the original ways of criticizing the regime was therefore to talk between the lines. Bulgakov was a champion in that respect.

In his final appeal to Russian citizens to avoid cowardice, Sentsov also talks between the lines. Kurov does not. But his classic documentary approach faces the same challenge: can it effectively criticize a regime of inherent cynicism?

The film is available to MODERN TIMES 'subscribers until January 1, 2018 here

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