Home Reviews Karlovy Vary Special Screening review: Real by Oleh Sentsov

Karlovy Vary Special Screening review: Real by Oleh Sentsov

Real by Oleh Sentsov

Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov (born in Crimea, Ukraine in 1976) is an ‘accidental documentarian’. Best known as a director of fiction films, such as Rhino (2019) and his upcoming English-language debut Shining World, he joined the Ukrainian army shortly after the large-scale Russian invasion of February 2022. 

In the trenches, he accidentally activated the GoPro camera on his helmet. The result is the 90-minute one-taker Real, which had its world premiere June 30 as a Special Screening at Karlovy Vary.

Why Sentsov had a camera on his helmet, I don’t know. Perhaps all Ukrainian soldiers do – I have seen other first-person POV war footage. And although I said ‘one-taker’ (and the film is presented as unedited), the version I watched had at least one cut, around the 21-minute mark, just after a major impact near their trench rains earth down on the men and Sentsov reaches for his helmet, his hand partially obscuring the view. Maybe he removed his helmet for a moment and later decided to cut the resulting chaotic imagery. It’s a detail worth noting, but it doesn’t disrupt the sensation of continuous presence.

Sentsov has called Real a ‘document’, not a documentary, because it had no planning at all, and he has stated that he has no intention of making any further documentaries – although he is sure his war experiences will inform his future fiction films. Nevertheless, the exceptional Real has assured him a place in the history of documentary filmmaking. Even if the recording happened accidentally, it was his instinct as filmmaker, after all, not to discard this material when he discovered it six months later, but to recognise its documentary value.

Because Real is, in many ways, extraordinarily real. Although, it should be noted, the title is almost a joke – just as the soldiers in the trenches share a certain gallows humour. ‘Real’ is the code name for the area where the advance infantry of a company of Ukrainian soldiers have become bogged down, which Sentsov’s group – part of the same unit – is trying to help get evacuated. Lieutenant Sentsov himself, under his personal code name ‘Grunt’, is located in ‘Marseille’, and when we hear that another nearby area is called ‘Chelsea’, it becomes clear that they’re named after football clubs. ‘Real’ is named after Real Madrid, in fact.

But again, Sentsov’s instinct in choosing Real as the title of his ‘document’ is correct. First, there’s the POV veracity of the camera person who doesn’t realise they’re filming: the experience comes very close to looking through lieutenant Sentsov’s unmediated eyes, as he both frantically (he is wasting no time) and calmly (he never raises his voice and gently corrects an interlocutor who does) tries to get help to the men at Real.

Second, nobody in the trenches seems to realise they’re being filmed (it makes little sense for wartime camera helmets to have a little red light at the front to indicate that the camera is on), so Real also presents us with something like the ultimate fly-on-the-wall approach. These soldiers are not thinking about the camera. The fly-on-the-helmet is simply there.

This is also what Sentsov realised when he discovered the footage he had unwittingly shot: the realness and the truth of it. This is unmediated media of war. Which, within its Aristotelian unities of action, time and place, creates an extremely direct confrontation with the realities of war. As Sentsov – like many veterans before him – has pointed out, war consists mainly of waiting. But what makes Real so intense, are the continuous sounds of fighting all around; the constant reminder that a direct hit could come at any moment – or not at all.

Indeed, Real is more a document of sounds than of images; we never leave the trench, where Sentsov barely moves, except to look around as he talks to his comrades. And being under fire, we never see beyond the trench’s edge. Apart from the sky and some nearby vegetation, we see nothing but the soldiers and their equipment in this hole in the ground. (If Sentsov later called the film ‘immersive’, it’s with good reason – even in this 2D format, Real comes close to the immersive qualities of a VR experience.)

If I didn’t need subtitles, I could imagine just listening to Real, as if it were a radio play. Indeed, it’s the radio communications which play the biggest part in the proceedings. And things are not going well. Not only are there men trapped at Real, without evacuation expected anytime soon, there is talk of shortages of ammunition, troops and water, and of destroyed ‘tin-cans’ (the English subtitle’s translation of the Ukrainian description of tanks – just as ‘fuckers’ is the constant translation for whichever word is used for ‘Russians’). Troops are pinned down, gains on the ground are disappointing and communications (which appear here as vocal rather than digital) are difficult.

This is another impressive part of the realism of Real: the acknowledgement of the hardships and difficulties of Ukrainian soldiers while the war is still raging, against the wartime intuition of only sharing good news about one’s own military. To understand how unprecedented this material is, just imagine having such documents about wars from the past. Imagine being able to sit with the soldiers in the trenches of Vicksburg, Nanshan or Verdun, with everybody reacting and talking as if there were no camera present. Such is the unprecedented historical value of Real.

It isn’t mentioned in the documentary itself, but Real takes place during the first Ukrainian counter-offensive in the summer of 2023, when many Russian gains were reversed until the Ukrainian advance stagnated. During the situation recorded in Real, Sentsov is in contact both with the pinned-down troops at Real and with higher levels of command, who cannot reach each other. He is therefore responsible for relaying information to both parties, to try and enable an evacuation as soon and as safely as possible. What we see and hear takes place over an hour and a half starting at around 9 in the morning, as part of a confrontation that had started at 4am and finished around 8 in the evening.

The politically outspoken Oleh Sentsov became an international cause célèbre after he was arrested in Crimea in 2014 by Russian occupation forces on fabricated charges of terrorism and sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment (see also Askold Kurov’s documentary The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov, 2017). After receiving significant international support, including the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize in 2018, Sentsov was released in 2019 as part of a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine. In the annals of war history, he deserves to become equally as famous for his accidental documentary Real.

Ukraine, Croatia 2024, 90 minutes
Director Oleh Sentsov
Production Arthouse Traffic, Cry Cinema
Producers Denis Ivanov, Oleh Sentsov, Mike Downey, Boris Matic
International sales Arthouse Traffic LLC.
Script Oleh Sentsov
Cinematography Oleh Sentsov
Sound Igor Kazmirchuk