“If there is a possibility that we will become the nails in the coffin of a tyrant, I’d like to be one of those nails. Just know that this particular one will not bend.” – Oleg Sentsov
Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov first came to the attention of the international film world with Gamer, a debut feature inspired by the computer and video-gaming club for young people that he founded; it opened to great acclaim at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2012. In May 2014, Sentsov was arrested in Crimea and charged with plotting acts of terrorism. His trial the following year was described by Amnesty International as a “total fiasco” and that the “entire case for the prosecution is built on a house of cards”, and yet he received a 20-year prison sentence in a correctional camp in Yakutia. Sentsov has always maintained his innocence, both to charges of terrorism and to allegations that he committed arson. On 7 September 2019, Sentsov was one of dozens of Ukrainian detainees released in a prisoner exchange with Russia. Widely regarded as a positive move to resolve the illegal occupation of Crimea and the Ukrainian war on its eastern border, other political prisoners still remain in Russian custody in an unstable and uncertain political situation.
The campaign launched with the theatre/concert genre-buster Staging a Revolution: I’m with the Banned which saw a once-in-a-lifetime musical collaboration between Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and Ukrainian supergroup Boombox, as well as on-stage performances from Pussy Riot, Brutto, Pet Shop Boys, Mark Thomas, Viktoria Modesta, Sam West, Kim Cattrall, Juliet Stevenson and Jeremy Irons. BFT brought together this unique line-up of banned bands from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine together with artists who live in political freedom to stand up for artistic freedom of expression and against injustice. Staging a Revolution: I’m with the Banned was streamed in the UK by BBC Arts and broadcast worldwide.
BFT then created Burning Doors, a theatrical exploration of the lives of three contemporary artists under dictatorship – Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina, Russian Actionist and political artist Petr Pavlensky, and Oleg Sentsov – which toured across the globe to critical and public acclaim. BFT asked these audiences to write postcards of support and solidarity to Oleg Sentsov. When Oleg finally received these messages – in total 22 kilograms worth of mail – from all across the world, he said: “22 kilos, I remember the weight. It was full of cards, notes, paper. It was very moving to me. Whatever prison I was sent to, I never threw away the letters of support.”
The Video Appeal
Together with other high profile artists, filmmakers and writers, BFT launched a video appeal calling for Oleg Sentsov’s release. It featured: actor, Simon Callow; Belarusian Nobel Laureate for Literature, Svetlana Alexievich; Polish film director and chair of European Film Academy, Agnieszka Holland; actor, Will Attenborough; Ukrainian film director, Yuri Khaschevatsky; fashion designer and activist, Vivienne Westwood. On behalf of the European Film Academy and together with Belarus Free Theatre, Lord Puttnam also made a video appeal.
The Political Event
The following year, in October 2016, BFT brought together parliamentarians, lawyers, activists and journalists for a dedicated event, Freedom of Expression in Ukraine, in the UK’s House of Commons. Supported by Rt Hon Maria Miller MP and Lord Puttnam on behalf of the European Film Academy, speakers included Andrei Khliyvynuk, activist and frontman of Ukrainian super group, Boombox; Eugene Stepanenko, film and theatre director turned soldier; and Natalia Kaliada. The discussion was facilitated by author and broadcaster, Peter Pomerantsev. Fiona Shaw, Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot and BFT’s Maryna Yurevich read extracts from Oleg Sentsov’s letters and from Burning Doors. In The Guardian, Luke Harding published Sentsov’s letter smuggled out of prison.
The Pop-up Installation
Weeks later, BFT transformed the iconic facades of a dozen London institutions including the Royal Opera House, the Fourth Plinth Trafalgar Square and Tate Modern, with a short film and projections of the film-maker.
In 2017, BFT began making its first dedicated documentary, Alone. It tells the story of the political awakening of the Ukrainian’s biggest pop stars, the lead singer of Boombox, as he risks everything to bring Oleg Sentsov’s story to his huge fanbase, in a direct challenge to the Russian dictatorship. Just as the film was completed, Oleg was freed. A powerful final sequence was shot to unite the popstar with the film-maker. Alone had its domestic premiere on Belsat TV in 2020.