Oleg Sentsov visits Toronto

Daria Bajus for New Pathway – Ukrainian News.

Ukrainian filmmaker and human rights activist Oleg Sentsov arrived in Canada last week for his campaign to free Ukrainian political prisoners illegally held by Russia.

In 2014, Sentsov was sentenced by Russian authorities to twenty years in jail on false terrorism charges. In reality, his crime was speaking out against Russia’s occupation of Crimea and helping to deliver food and water to Ukrainian soldiers. Five years later, he was one of 35 Ukrainian citizens released in exchange for an equal number of Russian citizens.

On February 3, The Ukrainian Canadian Congress, in partnership with PEN Canada and the Postcards for Prisoners Project, hosted the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in Toronto.

People were invited to the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema to attend a screening of “The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov”, followed by a Q&A session with Sentsov.

The documentary began with footage of Sentsov in TV interviews during his time of fame as a filmmaker and transitioned to videos of him from behind bars in a courtroom.

Director Askold Kurov gave a sneak peek into how the Russian judicial system truly operates. The film showcased an always-grinning and resilient Sentsov during his trial, while showing parts of his family life.

A deafening standing ovation erupted from the crowd as the film ended and Sentsov took the stage. Humble, with a witty sense of humour, he made the crowd laugh without even trying.

Sentsov explained that he had a general understanding of the world’s support while in isolation but was not aware of the details.

“It’s like you’re listening to the noise of a car outside,” he said through a Russian-language translator. “You can hear it, but you cannot exactly see what it is.”

When asked whether the trial affected him personally, Sentsov said that it did not.

“I knew about the conviction and what would happen from the second day that I was arrested.” Sentsov said. “When I refused to cooperate with the investigation and listen to their threats, I already knew they were threatening me with at least 10 years.”

There have been numerous compliments on his powerful closing statement in court.

“I don’t think it was a particularly great speech,” he said. “I have no idea how widely it spread or the effect it might have had on the Russian public,” he continued. “If some of the Russian citizens who heard me were able to open their eyes to the truth, then I feel as if I did a good job. There can be all kinds of pressure on Putin from the outside, but it is only the Russian people who can change it when they’ve had enough of him.”

The filmmaker firmly said that Ukraine’s relationship with the Russian Federation can only resume under a certain number of conditions. These include Russia leaving the occupied territories in Donbas and Crimea, as well as publically admitting and apologizing for those who were killed.

“And they must do so every time they hear the word Ukraine,” he pressed.

“President Sentsov,” jokingly whispered the interviewer. A big side-eye from a serious Sentsov had the crowd chuckle again.

Although he agrees that Ukraine’s main woes are war and corruption, Sentsov believes that they are not connected.

“We will never be able to solve our issues of corruption if we don’t have a transparent legal system,” he said. “When every person is equal before the law, starting with the president… when our judicial system will be independent and not subjective…. only then will this be possible. Only then can the entire political power work effectively.”

Regarding the future of Ukraine, Sentsov called himself a realist but does not doubt that the country will succeed.

“Trump will pass, Macron will pass, Putin will pass…but Ukraine will remain,” he said confidently.

Sentsov, who is a symbol of courage and bravery, left an undeniable impression on the audience. The filmmaker vowed to continue to speak out until the last prisoner is released. And the audience vowed to stand with him.