When Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov was arrested in 2014, he reportedly didn’t express any suicidal intents. Now he is on Day 50 of an open-ended hunger strike that has caught the world’s attention.
The story of the strike is as intricate as that of 41-year-old Sentsov’s imprisonment. An outspoken filmmaker and storyteller, Sentsov was a leading member of the Euromaidan movement that helped oust the corrupt pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych; he would not recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea. That resistance perhaps culminated in the former Soviet nation’s Federal Security Service arresting him on trumped-up charges of plotting terrorist attacks, without sufficient evidence that pointed to culpability. Before his incarceration in 2015, he was forced into a confession by brutal beatings and threats of sexual assault by the police. The main witness in the case would retract his testimony against the defendant when it came to light that the former was tortured as well. Sentsov still faced conviction. The Russian court claimed jurisdiction due to the annexation of his homeland, and could therefore sentenced him to twenty years in a prison thousands of miles away from his actual home, to which he may not return as Russian officials refuse to extradite him. Though he is of Russian heritage, Sentsov’s loyalty to his birth country has not and will not waver. Even under extreme duress at his sentencing, Sentsov spoke eloquently, proclaiming, “I am not a serf; I cannot be transferred with the land.”
Sentsov’s story sparked major backlash from European filmmakers and governments alike, and continues to captivate the public interest, for he knows how to skillfully tell it. In September 2016, the inmate successfully smuggled a letter out of his jail: He condemned the “cowardly” Russian military incursions into Ukraine by positioning the struggle in comparison to the dramatic nature of his situation. He can’t help either situation, the letter notes, but it is the duty of Sentsov and the fellow prisoners to “hold on” for their country.
That tactic changed for Sentsov on May 14, exactly one month before Russia began hosting the 2018 FIFA World Cup, when Sentsov went on an open-ended hunger strike to protest the incarceration of sixty-four Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia, all of whom were similarly convicted with inadequate prosecutorial evidence.
He stages this act of resistance in ways only a filmmaker could. He created a narrative arc we are currently in the midst of. Once the hunger strike began, there was a countdown clock that the world kept in the back of their minds as we drew closer to the first match. And since the games have begun, spectators look to the screens and watch their favorite countries play in the foreground. But in the same shot, in the subtextual middleground, Putin struggles to maintain the charade as gracious host while Western governments push for resolution. We gauge his reactions and interpret his every move–will the antagonist redeem himself, be defeated by forces greater than himself, or persevere, as is often the case with evil? Sentsov remains in the background–if not on screen, then in the back of our minds. But he is no longer simply holding on. He is taking action.
This action may in one way or another lead him to his demise. He has not pushed himself to the verge of suicide to escape the pain the Russian government inflicts upon him, but to redirect the public’s attention away from the pantomimes and to the issues that matter. If necessary, he will play the role of Martyr, following in the footsteps of Anatoly Marchenko, whose three-month-long hunger strike pushed Mikhail Gorbachev to authorize the large-scale amnesty of political prisoners, which later led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
According to Sentsov’s lawyer, the prisoner has already lost 44 pounds and his organs have begun to give out, despite receiving intravenous therapy. The Ukrainian government worries that Russian prison guards have resorted to force-feeding the filmmaker. He will likely die before the World Cup ends in two weeks. Though the majority of people will not boycott the World Cup, as EU lawmakers have requested, some large political action akin to this must be taken to get the attention of Putin, who holds Sentsov and so many other political prisoners’ fates in his hand. Storytellers are to be encouraged to document atrocities, not killed for doing their jobs.
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