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War in Ukraine: Oleg Sentsov's 'accidental' documentary

Scott Roxborough
June 27, 2024

With his immersive documentary "Real," Sentsov takes viewers inside Ukraine's war trenches, after unknowingly turning on the GoPro camera on his helmet.

A picture showing a soldier in full army gear stading in a trench.
A still from Oleg Sentsov's 'Real' that gives viewers a first-hand experience of reality in Ukraine's war trenchesImage: Cry Cinema

Oleg Sentsov was used to fighting Moscow even before he enlisted in the Ukrainian Defense Forces, shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

It's just that previously, instead of a gun, he'd used his camera.

When Russian special forces arrived in Crimea in 2014, Sentsov was on the ground documenting the illegal annexation of the region. He was arrested, sent to Russia, and given a 20-year sentence on  charges of "plotting terrorism."

Sentsov on the dock in a military court in 2015
In 2015, Sentsov, was arrested in Crimea by Russia's FSB security service for allegedly forming a group of saboteurs Image: SERGEY VENYAVSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Following a coordinated effort by the European Film Academy, Amnesty International and the European Parliament with the support of directors like Ken Loach, Pedro Almodóvar and Agnieszka Holland — Sentsov was finally released on September 7, 2019 as part of a Ukrainian-Russian prisoner swap.

In November 2019, the Ukrainian film director and human rights activist was able to collect the 2018 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought that was awarded to him by the European Parliament. Named after Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov, the award honors people who have "dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought." 

Even while behind bars, Sentsov continued to work. Via covert letters smuggled out of prison by his lawyer, he directed "Numbers," an adaptation of his own stage play about life in a dystopian, authoritarian state. The parallels to Sentsov's own life were obvious. 

But Sentsov is no knee-jerk nationalist. His 2021 feature "Rhino," which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, is a look at the chaos that engulfed Ukraine following the collapse of the Soviet Union and how crime and corruption filled the resulting power vacuum. 

Two men dressed in suits pose for the camera.
2018 Sacharov Prize laureate, Sentsov, accepted his prize in person from EU Parliament President David-Maria Sassoli in 2019Image: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images

'Live' from the trenches

But "Real," Oleg Sentsov's latest film, is unlike anything he's made before. 

It begins without explanation or warning. We are suddenly in a foxhole, hearing the frantic voice of a soldier over the radio in another trench, under attack from Russian forces and in desperate need of reinforcements.

The voice on our end — that of "Real" director Sentsov, call sign "Grunt" — is trying to organize the evacuation of troops under fire and the resupply of his unit. Ammunition is running out, and the Russian forces — uniformly referred to over the radio as "f**kers" — are closing in.

"This is one of those very long days. It was part of the much-anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive of last summer," says Sentsov, speaking via Zoom on leave from the front.

"We had spent almost 10 days trying to get through the Russian defense line. We lost equipment, we lost weapons. But we were still in the same place. It was really obvious that we were losing many people, losing armaments, vehicles, everything. But even at that moment, we'd kept our belief that we could do something."

Sentsov's unit was sent deep into enemy territory but their armored personnel carrier was hit and they were forced to flee on foot. The director-turned-soldier found himself in a trench, with a handful of his squadmates. Other units were pinned down by enemy fire and running out of ammunition.

"They were almost entirely surrounded by enemies, and I was the only one who had a connection with them and could report back up to the higher commanders," says Sentsov. "I was stationed a bit uphill and could communicate with both headquarters and the people in the trench."

Camera on by accident

"Real" plays out as a single, unedited take — an hour-and-a-half long — as Sentsov repeatedly calls between the units and headquarters, trying to cut through the fog of war and get help to the soldiers before it's too late. We see everything through Sentsov's eyes, or rather, through the lens of the GoPro camera attached to his helmet.

The director hadn't meant to be recording. He turned the camera on by accident when he was checking his equipment. It was weeks later, after the battle, that he discovered the footage on the camera's memory card.

"At first, I thought it looked very random, I didn’t think it would be interesting for anyone and I wanted to erase it," he says. "But then I started to watch it and I recognized that, oh my God, this is part of this very tragic event, with so many people in the trenches, cut off and surrounded by Russians. Our friends, my friends. People who will watch the movie may never see those soldiers and these situations but they can learn how tragic it was. They can see one of the most tragic days of the Ukrainian counter-offensive."

"Real" has none of the stylistic flourishes that exemplify Sentsov's narrative films. 2022's "Rhino," subtitled "Ukrainian Godfather" in its US release, is a slick gangster thriller that borrows heavily from the movies of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola to tell the story of the rise and fall of a violent delinquent — the Rhino of the title — who finds success in the chaos of 1990s Ukraine. 

2020's "Numbers," which is set on a single stage, evokes the theatrical mimimalism of Lars von Trier's "Dogville" or the plays of Bertolt Brecht

In "Real," the hand of the director is nowhere to be seen. Sentsov makes not a single edit. He adds no music or sound effects. Nothing is explained beyond what we see and hear on screen in real time. 

"This is why I don’t call this a film or even a documentary but rather a pure document," says Sentsov. "This is the video document that shows a part of the war, a very small glimpse of the war. But this war document captured on camera really shows us how cruel, how stupid, and, I can’t even find the words to describe it, how senseless war is...You get a very different perception of war if you only know it from war movies or from documentaries edited to make war look presentable. There’s always this component of heroism, everyone wants to emphasize this, to show dynamic, heroic action. But real war is very, very different."

Sentsov calls "Real" an "immersive experience. You are thrown in and you only slowly start to understand what’s going on. It really drags you into the trenches."

A document of war

Anyone expecting action will be disappointed. Instead we are forced to wait, along with the squad in the foxhole, with no idea what is happening around us and when the enemy will attack. "Real" captures the tension, the tedium, and the terror of war in equal measure.

"When I was young, I remember watching the movie 'Platoon' by Oliver Stone, and there’s a scene when one of the soldiers says: 'Forget the word hero. There’s nothing heroic in war'," says Sentsov. I couldn't really understand that at the time because I grew up on very different movies that gave a very different perception of war. Now, after two-and-a-half years in an active war zone, I have to say I completely agree with that young man in the movie."

Sentsov admits "the truth" he shows in his film may be painful for many, particularly inside Ukraine, to watch. The failure of the summer counter-offensive to break the Russian's defensive line has shifted the conflict towards a brutal war of attrition. 

"There are many things about the situation, about the reality of the war, that we are not discussing here inside Ukraine," says Sentsov. "If someone would ask me how long it will take to reestablish control over the 1991 borders and to achieve a military defeat of Russia, I would say maybe it could happen in 10 years, but that would be a miracle."

Instead of pretending that reality doesn't exist, says Sentsov, it would be better, for Ukraine and the world, to "stare at the eyes of the truth, however painful. Otherwise, we are going to spend all our lives in an illusion that doesn't relate to reality, to the real situation in front of us."

"Real" premieres at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival on June 30. 

Edited by: Brenda Haas