Oleh Sentsov on Life on Frontline of Ukraine’s War With Russia and His ‘Accidental’ Karlovy Vary-Premiering Documentary ‘Real’

Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov is sitting in a brightly lit apartment in Kyiv, wife Veronika by his side, hand cupping his right ear. “What? What? What?” he says, asking Variety to repeat the question. More than two years on the frontline of Ukraine’s war with Russia have provided Sentsov with few chances for levity, but he allows himself a mischievous grin. After suffering, by his count, “six contusions and two perforations” to his right ear drum, the director has lost a significant portion of his hearing. It may or may not return. Sentsov shrugs. Many of his Ukrainian comrades, he knows, have suffered far worse fates.

It’s a point driven home by the director’s latest film, “Real,” a documentary snapshot of the Ukraine war that world premieres with a special screening at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. Described as an “accidental” film, the 88-minute feature is entirely comprised of footage Sentsov shot in a trench in Ukraine’s Donbas region after a nearby unit was ambushed by Russian forces.

More from Variety

It is a chilling glimpse of a fleeting moment in a war that has claimed tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians since it began. Reliving that day is still a struggle for the 47-year-old Sentsov, a father of four who expects to return to the front soon. “It’s hard to watch at the beginning, but this is an immersive experience,” he says. “There is nothing fake in this. It’s raw material.”

The director is speaking to Variety on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the battle shown in “Real.” Two days later, he’ll visit the widows of several soldiers who were killed that day by Russian troops. His close-cropped military cut, arching in a high widow’s peak, has gone gray; so has the goatee framing his square jaw. Asked how it feels to be home in Kyiv, surrounded by his wife and children, his reply is terse, soldierly. “It’s better than other places,” he says. “Usually, I’m in a bad place, so here is good.”

“Real” was filmed on the tenth day of a Ukrainian counteroffensive last June in the Zaporizhzhia region, in the country’s southeast. Sentsov’s unit had been struggling to break through the Russian defense line, but that morning, they’d received orders to penetrate deeper into Russian-occupied territory. As the commanding officer, Sentsov rushed back to shore up his unit’s defenses with more troops and supplies, but a small detachment of Ukrainian soldiers was cut off at a position code-named Real. “They were surrounded by Russians on every side,” he says.

Separated by more than a mile of no-man’s land and under a constant barrage of Russian artillery, Sentsov was the only person who could communicate with the stranded unit, their appeals for help growing more plaintive as the day wore on. The siege lasted from roughly 4 a.m. until 8 o’clock that evening; Sentsov began recording sometime around 8 a.m., his camera sweeping back and forth across the trench where he and his unit were dug in, as a soldier on the other end of the radio called for reinforcements. It was a stroke of pure luck that the scene was captured when Sentsov reached up to adjust his helmet, accidentally turning on his GoPro, which recorded until the battery died. It would be six months before he realized he had produced an eyewitness account of the war that began with Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

His initial impulse was to delete the footage. After watching it, however, he sent it to his longtime producer, Denis Ivanov — his collaborator on “Rhino,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2021 — as well as other civilians who hadn’t experienced the war firsthand. He was unsure if the footage had any cinematic value, but they impressed upon him that what he had captured was “fair and honest reporting” and “a real document of the war.” Ivanov would go on to produce “Real” through his Arthouse Traffic banner, in co-production with Boris T. Matić and Lana Matić of Croatia’s Propeler Film and U.K. veteran Mike Downey of Downey Ink. Sentsov, who shares a production credit, also assisted with the coloring and sound, holed up in a post-production studio in Kyiv during his rare breaks from the front.

Oleh Sentsov
Sentsov shot the footage for “Real” after accidentally turning on his GoPro in the heat of battle.

Most of “Real” takes place over a few square yards in the trench where Sentsov and his comrades were holed up, radioing the besieged unit while gun shots and artillery blasts sound off-camera. It is a strange and off-putting viewing experience, one that the director says mirrors, in whatever small way, the experience of fighting itself. “When you’re in a war, you’re basically blind. Ninety percent of information, you gather from sounds,” he says. “There is a helicopter, there are artillery shots, there is fighting, there is screaming. All that information, your brain is gathering not by seeing the objects, but by observing the sounds around you. It was very important to show this.”

Despite having no military experience before the Russian invasion, Sentsov has become battle-hardened after more than two years on the frontline. On the day Russian forces swept across the border he joined Ukraine’s volunteer Territorial Defense, but within a few months he’d left to join the special forces, telling a reporter for Le Monde that the volunteer unit was “too boring for [his] taste.”

He posts regularly about the war on social media, recounting his countless scrapes with death, offering tributes to fallen comrades and cataloging both the war’s physical and emotional toll. “It was hard to write about all this yesterday, after a heated battle,” he wrote after a narrow escape last fall. “It’s hard to write today, already being safe. It’s going to be hard to write tomorrow when it’s all going to be memories and nightmares.” In another post, he wrote: “You only really feel life when death passes you by.”

Since making his debut as a filmmaker with the 2011 drama “Gamer,” Sentsov’s life and career have been frequently sidetracked by geopolitical events in his restive region. In 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas region, Sentsov — a Crimea native — was arrested by Russian authorities on trumped-up terrorism charges and sentenced to 20 years in a penal colony close to the Arctic Circle. The director vigorously denied the accusations, at one point launching a hunger strike that lasted 145 days, while an international campaign for his release drew a coalition of governments, rights groups, industry bodies, literary luminaries and Hollywood stars.

Ukrainian filmmaker, writer and activist from Crimea Oleg Sentsov (Oleh Hennadiiovych Sentsov) is seen in Gdansk, Poland on 25 October 2019 during the media meeting in the European Solidarity Centre.
Sentsov was awarded the prize of the Mayor  of the city of Gdansk during the Solidarity of Arts Festival in August, when he was in Russian jail. (Photo by Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Sentsov was freed in 2019 after more than five years in a Russian penal colony.

In Sept. 2019, he was released as part of a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine, and just months later Sentsov walked the red carpet at the Berlin Film Festival with his dystopian drama “Numbers” — a film that he improbably wrote and co-directed while behind bars. He then filmed “Rhino,” a crime drama set in the Ukrainian underworld in the 1990s, hoping to close one turbulent chapter in his life and get a fresh start. When he appeared on the Lido for the film’s Venice premiere, he told Variety he was ready to “pursue a civilian life” and leave the events of a tumultuous decade behind.

Once again, however, history has intervened. While Sentsov hopes to be in Karlovy Vary when “Real” premieres, there’s no telling what the war has in store; in Ukraine, he says, it’s impossible to plan more than a week in advance. It’s too early, too, to speculate on when he will return to filmmaking, though he has at least two features — including his English-language debut, “Shining World” — currently in the pipeline. “Right now, I’m a soldier. I’m in combat and I do what I have to do,” he says. “But I’m confident that in the future, I will make movies.”

Until then, he remains focused on the day-to-day struggle of defending his homeland, protecting his soldiers and living to again see his family in Kyiv, including a toddler born after the Russian invasion. As he posted recently on Facebook: “Having a home where your family is waiting for you gives a whole different level of motivation here on the front lines. You know exactly who you’re risking your life for, you know exactly who you have to survive for.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.