The case of Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov has provoked an outcry within the international film community, with Pedro Almodóvar, Wim Wenders, Agnieszka Holland, Ken Loach, Alexandr Sokurov, Andrey Zvyagintsev, and others publicly calling for Russia to set him free from a high-security prison near the Arctic Circle. Sentsov’s troubles with the authorities came to a head in 2014 when he dropped plans to shoot a followup to his FIPRESCI Prize-winning debut feature, Gamer, in order to join the wave of demonstrations in Kiev against the Ukrainian government’s decision to opt for closer ties with Russia than with Europe. He was eventually arrested, charged with planning terrorist attacks, and given a sentence of twenty years. Sentsov denies the specific charges but does not deny delivering food and supplies to the Ukrainian forces who fought the Russian invasion of Crimea that eventually led to the annexation of the peninsula. Since May 14, Sentsov has been on a hunger strike, protesting the incarceration of over sixty Ukrainian political prisoners and demanding their release—but not his own.
Earlier this month, Masha Gessen, whose most recent book is The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, wrote for the New Yorker about Sentov’s standoff with the authorities, which may well end with the infuriatingly tragic death of the Ukrainian filmmaker. On Saturday, Gessen will be at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image to take part in a discussion with Estonian producer Max Tuula following a screening of Askold Kurov’s 2017 documentary The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov. The event has just been added to the lineup of the Museum’s ongoing, monthlong series Putin’s Russia: A 21st Century Film Mosaic.
MoMI has timed its series to coincide with this year’s World Cup currently taking place in eleven Russian cities. Both events will run through July 15, but only one offers insight into how the lives of 144 million people strewn across eleven time zones have changed since Vladimir Putin ascended to the presidency on the night of December 31, 1999, following the surprise resignation of Boris Yeltsin.
Over the past nineteen years, Putin has consolidated power—his own and Russia’s—not only by annexing Crimea, but also by reclaiming Chechnya, engaging in proxy wars in Georgia and Ukraine, meddling in the affairs of foreign powers, both overtly (Syria) and covertly (elections in the U.S. and elsewhere), and squelching dissent at home. The aim of MoMI’s series is not to draw a definitive portrait of the country in the twenty-first century but rather to offer a prismatic array of viewpoints in the form of comedies, thrillers, blockbusters, and documentaries.
For Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice, these films, taken together, “tell the story of a society that entered a new century in a flush of anything-goes unruliness, only to see the bonds of community dissolve amid intolerance, despotism, and murder. I’ve rarely seen a film series that feels like its own tragic narrative: To watch these movies is to live through a world becoming disconnected from itself.” Vadim Rizov, writing for frieze, sees a more assertive argument in the lineup, a “definite (and valid) thesis: the important Russian films of this millennium were made in active opposition to, or at the very least with heightened awareness of, Vladimir Putin.”
For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.