Oleh Sentsov On How He “Accidentally” Captured The Front Line In Ukraine’s Defense Against Russia’s Invasion In Karlovy Vary Doc ‘Real’

Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov’s latest feature Real, his first since the 2021 Venice comp title Rhino, opens with a messy GoPro shot of Ukrainian soldiers taking cover in a shallow trench in the Donbas, the country’s front line in its defense against Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the country.

Across the next 100 minutes, the camera barely moves from this spot. We don’t see any warfare but we hear it. Soldiers are attacked and Russian bombs are launched. The immediate contemporary comparison, in terms of form, would be Jonathan Glazer’s unwavering Oscar-winner The Zone Of Interest. Unlike Glazer’s fiction movie, however, Real was captured unintentionally by Sentsov on his official military helmet camera. He found the footage months later on his laptop.

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“I saw a big video file and I thought I should delete it because it was taking too much space on my laptop,” he told us via Zoom from his family home in Kyiv. “But then I started watching it. It was very interesting to me. Then I tried to show it to other people and they were also interested. That’s when we decided to publish it.”

The film will debut as a special screening at this year’s Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where Oleh has traveled with special permission from Ukrainian officials to present the film.

The film’s official synopsis reads: During the first days of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, film director Oleh Sentsov, an army reservist since returning from his incarceration in Putin’s gulag,  joined a unit of the Ukrainian Defence Forces. In his role as an army lieutenant, he took part in several intensive battles – and during one, his BMP armored vehicle was destroyed by Russian artillery. In the aftermath, he became embedded in nearby trenches and tried to organize via radio the evacuation of part of his unit. All the while his men were under consistent attack, and eventually ran out of ammunition, making their evacuation all the more urgent. This military event on the Ukrainian-Russian front line positions was given the code name Real.

The film is a co-production between Propeler Film and Downey Ink. The producers are Denis Ivanov, Oleh Sentsov, Mike Downey, Boris Matić, and Lana Matić.

Sentsov, whose filmography also includes Nomery (2020) and Gamer (2011), joined Ukraine’s voluntary Territorial Defense forces on the day of Russia’s invasion on February 24, 2022. Within a year, the 47-year-old filmmaker had moved into the country’s special forces and has since seen regular action in eastern Ukrainian hotspots of Zaporizhzhia, Bakhmut, and Donetsk.

Below, the filmmaker speaks about life at war, how he managed to convince military officials to release the film, and what’s next for him after debuting the pic at Karlovy Vary.

DEADLINE: Oleh, firstly, how are you?

OLEH SENTSOV: I’m fine. Right now, I’m at home with my family in Kyiv. I’m on annual leave from the military. And this evening, I’m going to Karlovy Vary for the premiere of the movie. So right now I’m feeling much better than I usually would if I were in the Donbas.

DEADLINE: What is the mood like where you are?

SENTSOV: Kyiv is one world, and Donbas and the front lines are a different world. Kyiv is almost like a peaceful city if you don’t count the air alerts and occasional missile attacks. But Kyiv is very well protected with anti-missile systems. So for better or worse, people are living in two different worlds — at war and in peaceful cities like Kyiv.

DEADLINE: This film is incredibly successful at transporting the viewer into the unpredictable world of war. And that is largely thanks to its form. But you describe Real as an “accident.” Can you explain why?

SENTSOV: I don’t really consider it a movie because it was an accidental recording I found six months later. I saw a big video file and thought I should delete it because it was taking up too much space on my laptop. But then I started watching it. It was very interesting to me because I was there and it was very personal. But then I tried to show it to other people and they were also interested. That’s when we decided to publish it. There was no video editing, so it is just everything that the GoPro shot that day. We did some sound editing because GoPro shoots sound very poorly. So we needed to amplify certain sounds to match the reality.

DEADLINE: What do you hope audiences in Karlovy Vary and beyond will take from the film?

SENTSOV: To be honest, I’m not very concerned about it. I understand that it is pretty difficult to watch even though there aren’t any scenes of explicit violence in the movie. But I believe everyone who wants to see the film will be able to.

DEADLINE: Was it difficult to get authorization from the military to release this footage?

SENTSOV: From your question, it’s clear you’re from a country of rule of law. In general, we are not that kind of country. Procedures don’t work in our country. Getting official approvals in Ukraine is very bureaucratic and it’s nearly impossible. The military and political leadership of Ukraine would have never approved the release of this movie. So in this case, I use my judgment. I’m not disclosing any sensitive intelligence or military secrets. No information could harm people from the military or my country. I might face some punishment, but I think it’s unlikely because I’m a public figure and this movie does nothing to harm Ukraine.

DEADLINE: How will you travel to Karlovy Vary?

SENTSOV: It is difficult. There are no flights to or from Ukraine. So I will first go by train, cross the border, catch another train, and then maybe a flight from somewhere within Europe. But I do have an official permit to travel.

DEADLINE: What’s next after Karlovy Vary? Will you report back to the military?

SENTSOV: Of course, I’m part of the Ukrainian military, so I follow military orders. I do what I’m told to do. This little vacation is just a small opportunity for me to get back to my favorite activity. And when I’m talking about my favorite activity, I’m not talking just about making movies. I’m also talking about going to festivals and drinking beer.

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