Director Oleg Sentsov has become somewhat of an icon in Ukraine's resistance against Russia. After being detained in Crimea and accused of terrorism, he was tortured and sent to a Russian prison, where he spent five years.
He was released in 2019 and has since returned to doing what he loves most: making movies.
His new film "Rhino" dives into the crime-ridden Ukraine of the 1990s, portraying how the criminal underworld filled a power void resulting from the fall of the Soviet Union.
DW spoke with Sentsov to learn more about the movie, his unique casting decisions and his role in Ukrainian politics.
DW: Rhino is the first film you've made in about 10 years. How does it feel?
Oleg Sentsov: It's like I've paid myself back a long-overdue debt. I have always had a burning desire to make this film. That hasn't stopped in the past 10 years, despite all the difficulties, such as my imprisonment and the war in my country.
You wrote the script before you went to prison. Did you then work on it again behind bars?
I didn't change the script in prison, although I wrote a lot there — four new scripts in total. But in prison you deal with much lighter stories — it's dark enough there already. I guess if I had written "Rhino" in my cell, the plot would be half as violent.
Why does "Rhino" look so deeply into the flaws of Ukrainian society in the 1990s?
It is a brutal film. Simply because that's how things were at the time. There is nothing to gloss over or conceal. First, the Soviet Union traumatized us, and then there were the transitional years of the 90s.
The lawlessness I show in "Rhino" was even worse in reality.
Today, we live in a completely different country, but quite a few people in Ukraine still romanticize that period.
I, on the other hand, want to completely de-romanticize it with "Rhino." I want to say that the protagonists in the film are the bad guys; their lives were terrible and not at all desirable. To this day, there is no Ukrainian film about this time that deals with this subject honestly and uncompromisingly.
What specifically makes the life of your main character, a criminal nicknamed Rhino, so bad?
His character, with all his changes and inner contradictions, is what really interested me. In the 90s, gangs and crime ruled our country. This is the ruthless world Rhino lives in.
I myself was not a criminal in the 90s, but I know people who were, so I am familiar with this world. While I was developing the main character, I was interested in one question above all: Where do I find the human side in all of this brutality? Because every human being, even if they do bad things, also has something good in them.
Is that what you ultimately found in the character of "Rhino"?
There's an old saying: It's better to see something once than to hear about it a hundred times (laughs).
Let's talk about the leading actor. You cast Serhii Filimonov, an amateur actor.
It was clear to me that I would not find anyone among the professional actors in Ukraine who would be even remotely capable of putting himself in the role of Rhino. So we cast many former soldiers, athletes or prisoners. These are people who have prevailed in extremely stressful situations; you can see that in their eyes. That was also the case with Serhii.
Serhii Filimonov used to be a hooligan, soldier and far-right activist. Today, he sees himself as part of civil society and fights against corruption. Didn't his past make you hesitant to cast him?
No, that's exactly what I was looking for. Someone who has had to go through various struggles in life, whose past is also overshadowed by negative experiences — someone who has grown inside; someone who is ready to face challenges. I'm glad we found him because he has the physical and mental fitness needed for this role. He's even a pretty good actor (grins).
His chest actually has "Victory or Valhalla" (victory or death) tattooed on it. There is nothing about that in the film …
That wouldn't have fit with the 90s in Ukraine either. We covered it up with make-up during filming and also in post-production. But don't think that he spread fear and terror right from the start. It was quite the opposite: Initially, he looked almost too tame for me and I wouldn't have thought that one day I would choose him for the role. He still had a beard then and weighed less. But in the end I liked him, and he shaved and put on weight for the film.
You are now a filmmaker again, but many associate you with the Ukrainian resistance against Russia. Aren't you also a politician now?
Politics are not really my thing. But I now take part in public actions directed against Russian aggression. I suffered from that and many still do. Many have died and, unfortunately, are still dying. My main concern is that there are more than a hundred political prisoners still serving time in Russia who should be released. I was one of them. But I don't belong to any party and I don't see that as my task.
The interview was conducted at the Odesa International Film Festival in August 2021.