Russia's politically charged imprisonment of Crimean film director Oleh Sentsov has outraged critics as a perceived effort to suppress dissent on the Ukrainian peninsula following its forceful annexation by Moscow in 2014. One of the best known and most outspoken of opponents of Russia's action, Sentsov was charged almost immediately after the seizure with conspiring to commit terrorism and ultimately given a 20-year jail sentence.
Supporters in Ukraine and abroad are using Sentsov's 40th birthday, on July 13, to declare that he has not been forgotten. Mike Downey, a film producer and the deputy head of the European Film Academy, spoke with RFE/RL about why Sentsov's case remains important to people across Europe.
Downey, who knows Sentsov personally, is among the signatories of an open letter from 19 leading European directors and producers sent to President Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian officials in June 2014 to demand the filmmaker's immediate and unconditional release from pretrial detention.
RFE/RL: How do you know Oleh Sentsov and what do you think of his jailing?
Mike Downey: My connection with Sentsov goes back to December 2013. I was on the jury of the Tbilisi Film Festival as I was preparing to shoot Lost In Karastan (2014), as well as working with Sentsov's producer Olga Zhurzhenko on an adaptation of Julian Barnes' The Porcupine, to be shot partially in Kyiv, after securing funding from the Ukrainian Film Fund. Shortly afterwards, Zhurzhenko and I had managed to raise some further funds in Europe for the production of Sentsov's second feature, Rhino, due to shoot in summer 2014.
It was during the Cannes Film Festival of 2014 that it finally became clear that Oleh was not going to be released by the Russian authorities anytime soon. And so, with my European Film Academy deputy chairman's hat on, the academy began a campaign, which continues today: to draw attention to his plight and to raise money for his children and legal costs. We are also pushing to keep Oleh's name and case in the public eye -- and this year worked with the Cannes Film Festival and Oleh's picture and description of his case appeared before every screening of the Director's Fortnight.
The charges, trial, and eventual sentencing were a clear travesty of justice and an exercise in making an example of a scapegoat Ukrainian in the Crimea by the illegal Russian occupiers. The jailing of Oleh didn't surprise me. However, with the release of [Crimean photographer Hennadiy] Afanasyev [who was jailed along with Sentsov] and now [Ukrainian airwoman Nadia] Savchenko, I believe that we have every hope that Oleh could be next. There are still more exchanges to be made and not all of them military. We will keep up our campaign of fund-raising and public awareness via events at the upcoming summer festivals on the movie circuit.
RFE/RL: How would you describe Oleh to those who don't know him?
Downey: Oleh is a modest man of strong and firm opinions. He is principled, engaged, intelligent, and uncompromising. He will be under no illusions that he will be treated well, or can expect clemency. Even now, communication has been difficult with him in the modern gulag where he is being held, and many of the letters his family have sent have been returned.
RFE/RL: Is there anything you would like to tell Oleh on his birthday?
Downey: There are many people across Europe in the world who are aware of his case, who understand he has done no wrong, and is innocent and is a victim of a vindictive system and regime that has singled him out for arbitrary punishment. That we will keep up our campaign as long as his lawyer...and his cousin...think it is necessary -- and we will do everything we can to not forget him in these the dark days of his imprisonment.
Yet Oleh is smart enough to know that he will be released, sooner or later, as arbitrarily and as randomly as he was arrested and imprisoned by the illegal occupying forces of Russia in Crimea. I would also like to remind people and Oleh of his words on sentencing to the three judges:
"Treason and betrayal can sometimes start with simple cowardice," he said [adding that] cowardice was "the greatest sin," quoting Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master And Margarita.
"When they put a bag on your head, beat you up a bit, and half an hour later, you're ready to go back on all your beliefs, implicate yourself in whatever they ask, implicate others, just to stop them beating you. I don't know what your beliefs can possibly be worth if you are not ready to suffer or die for them," he said.