Home Interviews Karlovy Vary Special Screening: Real by Oleh Sentsov

Karlovy Vary Special Screening: Real by Oleh Sentsov

Real by Oleh Sentsov

Not many films happen by accident. However, Ukrainian director (and soldier) Oleh Sentsov freely admits that his new project Real (world-premiering this week at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival) was not planned in advance. 

The film is set in trenches on the front line during the Ukrainian counter-offensive against the full-scale Russian invasion in the summer of 2023. Sentsov, a lieutenant in the Ukrainian Defence Forces, had a go-pro camera on his helmet that he didn’t even realise was recording. 

“I don’t normally turn it on because when you are in active fights, you tend to forget about such things,” Sentsov reflects on the unlikely circumstances in which the film came into being. “It was a very difficult day, the fight for the ‘real’ position. I was a platoon commander at that point and so I was on the first Bradley [fighting vehicle] moving forward. We deployed our infantry and then we were going back to get some back-up, but then our Bradley got hit.”

Forced to leave the vehicle, Sentsov took refuge in another trench. That was when he checked his go-pro and inadvertently turned it on.

“I only discovered the footage six months later. Initially, I just wanted to delete it. I thought it was nothing special, but then I realised that it was actually very interesting – a documentation of part of a very difficult battle.”

Real unfolds in a single shot. There is no editing as such – although Sentsov did do some sound editing in post-production.

“It was everything that the go-pro shot that day. We decided to leave it as such without any editing. That’s why I don’t really consider it a film. It is just a part of life, something that shows what war truly is. Usually, when you see videos from the war, they are edited. This is what makes Real different. It is just raw footage.”

The imagery of soldiers hunkering down in trenches can’t help evoke memories of the Somme and Verdun. Sentsov observes that the soldiers describe their experiences as being like “World War One [but] with drones.”

One quirk of the battle that Real shows is the nicknames of the trenches. They are called ‘Chelsea’, ‘Barcelona’ and ‘Marseilles’…all top European football teams. 

“There is no system as to why certain positions are called in a certain way. It really depends on the military unit. Sometimes, it can be names of cities or names of rivers. In this case, it was names of football clubs. Unfortunately, sometimes, two military units might have different names for the same position which can be a communication issue,” Sentsov talks through the slang the soldiers have adopted. “There were very difficult fights for Barcelona and for Tottenham. On Tottenham, I also got hit [when] on the Bradley.”

Ten years ago, Sentsov organised humanitarian assistance for Ukrainian soldiers when the Russians illegally annexed Ukraine. He was arrested, faced trumped up terrorism charges and was sentenced to 20 years in jail as a result. 

Did his experience in the Russian penal system help when it came to fighting in the current conflict? Did it give him extra resilience? The director ponders the question, eventually answering.

“Of course, it’s very useful. If you’ve had a lot of difficult life experience, it does make it easier during the war. But I’ve also seen young people come and join the army, people who had no such experience, but after two years, they become these resilient people, different from what they used to be before they joined the army.”

The director adds that just as he always believed he would be released from prison, he is convinced he will eventually return to Crimea. “I have the Ukrainian flag that I want to put there when I get there.”

In the film, we hear Sentsov giving orders to fellow soldiers. He’s an officer and, yes, it’s not so different issuing commands to soldiers to telling crew members what to do on a movie set.

“Of course, you do need technical expertise and you do need some military experience but if you’re good at communication and have certain leadership skills, then the difference is not that big.”

Some Ukrainians have expressed dismay at how long they have had to wait for western support and weapons. These are not complaints you’ll ever hear from Sentsov.

“First of all, why did we think that the west is obliged to give us anything? I personally am deeply grateful for any ammunition we’re getting; for every dollar, every pound, every Euro we are getting. They [the west] are not obliged to help us.”

He adds that he is “much angrier” with Ukraine’s former presidents than he is with the west. Instead of strengthening Ukraine militarily, politically and economically, these corrupt politicians spent their time trying to enrich themselves and their friends or attempting to curry favour with Russia.

“It’s the mistakes of our own former governments for which we are playing now with blood. I wouldn’t want to see Ukraine as a beggar, begging for help all the time. I would want to see Ukraine as a strong country that can be a strong and capable part of the western community rather than somebody depending on subsidy and support. That is what we were fighting and dying for during the Maidan protests and that is what we are fighting and dying for in this war. We are going to fight for as long as it takes – until we build this kind of country.”

Sentsov is speaking to Business Doc Europe during a break from front line duties.

“There is no term of service for Ukrainian military personnel right now because there is no demobilisation. Once you’re in the army, you basically serve for infinity…you kind of serve until the end of your life, which is a huge problem. That’s why we are advocating for a term of service to be set,” the filmmaker reflects on current regulations that risk sapping morale and why they need to be changed. He’s entitled to 30 days of leave. On the day he speaks to Business Doc Europe, Sentsov is at home, recovering from a gruelling stint on the frontline.

“Tomorrow I am going to Karlovy Vary to present the movie…it’s my first big vacation since the start of the full-scale invasion.”

Does he have any time for writing or preparing new films? “Of course, I hope to survive the war and I hope that when the war ends, after our victory, I will be able to get back to my filmmaking and creative activities.”

Real was produced by Denis Ivanov’s Arthouse Traffic in collaboration with Propeler Film and Downey Ink.