RUSSIA: The philosopher Žižek defined this particular form of power, as the “immanent cynicism of power”. It developed during the communist regime.
Director: Askold Kurov
Country: UK, 2017, 75 min

«The Greatest Sin Is Cowardice.» With this quote from Michail Bulgakov, Oleg Sentsov closes his final speech at the trial. Sentsov, a film director and Maidan activist born in Ukraine was charged with leading an anti-Russian terrorist movement in Crimea during the events following March 2014. Renowned filmmaking colleagues such as Agnieszka Holland and Wim Wenders, as well as the European Film Academy, campaigned for his release, but in August 2015, a Russian court in Rostov-on-Don  sentenced him to 20 years’ imprisonment in Siberia. In this documentary, Askold Kurov investigates the context of the trial.

Kurov’s prime source of imagery was found footage. He employed recordings from Sentsov’s own films, various media representations of Sentsov and of the historical events underlying the trial, as well as his family archives. Among
the photographs in the Sentsov family album, there is, as his mother joyfully comments, “Sentsovs first photogram”: an aerial shot of his pet dog. “Or a cat,” remarks the mother. Indeed. Depicted from above, any domestic animal looks like as an oval-shaped stain. Only representations from the side give enough information to make the represented recognizable, not because of some intrinsic ingredient of the representation but because we have learned so. This is a textbook demonstration that images are not things, and the awareness that the way we see things has been historically, socially and culturally contingent is an underlying premise of this film.

Truth and Justice. Askold Kurov graduated in documentary filmmaking at the Marina Razbezhkina Film School in Moscow. In 2012, together with other nine colleagues, he spent two months filming people, their conversations, rallies, victories, and defeats ahead of the presidential election. Thus they created a chronicle of Russia’s winter protests with a telling name Winter, Go Away! (Zima, ukhodi!). His next film, Leninland (2013) was a documentary on the abandoned Museum of Lenin in the village Gorky, near Moscow, while the Children 404 (2014) documented the consequences of the Russian law that forbids “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors,” obliging parents and friends of gay kids to tell them they are sick, sinful and abnormal. Officially, these teens don’t exist and if you search for them on the Internet, the “Error 404” message occurs. The focus on human rights issues and social conflicts in contemporary Russia makes Kurov one of those contemporary documentarians who, regardless the risks, keep the publics aware of the controversies of the contemporary world. As traditional popular media and social media immerse in the pursuit of popularity and political games, the work of these filmmakers is ever more important, and also ever more difficult. The Trial and the destiny of Sentsov testify to that.

This autobiographical aspect of The Trial further complicates the task of balancing between the elusive nature of human communication on the one hand and the pursuit of truth and justice on the other. Kurov is dealing with it with cold and precise mastery. Throughout the film, same issues appear several times, and topics repeat. Every time they are treated from a different perspective. This strategy is most visible in dealing with the lead subject, the director Sentsov himself. The viewer gets the opportunity to look at him from various angles: his own words, his old and recent media performances, his films, his enemies and friends, his lawyer, cousin, mother. The film is structured as an investigation, almost as an attempt to uncover a hidden, potentially terrorist face of this comic-book artist turned businessman turned storyteller turned filmmaker turned political activists Sokurov.

While most of the time the underlying ambiguity remains hidden, it comes to the fore in the dialogue between film director Aleksander Sokurov and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, where it is not even clear what the crimes committed by Sentsov are in the first place. Sokurov: “I beg you, a film director should be battling me at film festivals…”. Putin: “He has been convicted not for his body of work, but for a different role… He dedicated his life to terrorist activities.” Sokurov: “This was the gravest political collision. How could a common person, a young man… understand complications of the political moment?” Here, Sokurov might be referring to the activities of Sentsov after Russia seized Crimea in April 2014, when he started helping Ukrainian soldiers and their families – actions that, from Russia’s point of view, might be viewed as terrorism while Sokurov is trying to present them as a misjudgement of a complex historical moment. President Putin, however, refuses even to discuss it: “It is not about his views… It is about his intentions and preparations for wrongful acts the results of which our citizens could have suffered.”

The cynicism gets even more obvious when Sokurov starts begging Putin to suppress justice: “It is Russian and Christian way to hold mercy higher than justice. I beg you… Please.” To what Putin replies calmly, with a smile, defending the law: “We can’t act Russian and Christian in this situation without a court judgment.” The court, as one learns during the film, judged that Sentsov is a terrorist on the basis of extorted confessions and his film collection, among them Soviet director Mikhail Romm’s antifascist classic Ordinary Fascism (1965). 

Power. We – while watching the film, and Sokurov, Sentsov, and Kurov in their everyday practice as film directors – are dealing with a particular form of power. Slavoj Žižek defined it as the “immanent cynicism of power”. It developed during the communist regime, and at that time, already, it posed a serious challenge to those who wanted to oppose it, because it has criticism incorporated within. One of the initial modes of criticism applied in this situation was speaking between the lines. Bulgakov was a master of this. In his closing appeal to Russian citizens to avoid cowardice, Sentsov is speaking between the lines too. Not Kurov. But his classical documentarian approach is facing the same challenge as speaking between the lines: can it efficiently criticize power that is immanently cynical?