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BERLINALE 2020 Berlinale Special

Oleg Sentsov • Director of Numbers

“When you are able to topple the old regime, that does not automatically mean you are able to build a better one”

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- BERLINALE 2020: Ukrainian helmer Oleg Sentsov, who made his new film, Numbers, while in prison, talked to us about working on set remotely and his love of cinema

Oleg Sentsov  • Director of Numbers
(© East News)

It’s a slightly surreal and intimidating experience meeting Oleg Sentsov, who attended the 70th Berlinale to present Numbers [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Oleg Sentsov
film profile
]
, a dark, dystopian tale about a totalitarian regime, which resonates perfectly with the current global sense of anxiety. For years, he was held in what can only be described as a “gulag”, and all we could do was appeal for his release during festivals and follow his harrowing detention through social media.

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Sentsov is tall, shows composure and gives a firm handshake; being beside him feels like standing next to a concrete pillar supporting a building or a bridge. Maybe it’s the close proximity of the demolished Berlin Wall that generates that feeling, or maybe it’s something different. Sentsov smiles when he is told that we want to ask him about his film: “Great, because most questions for me are about politics.” He laughs when we ask him whether not being on set should perhaps be more commonplace among directors, if it gives such a good result. “I wouldn’t recommend such an approach,” he replies. When you’ve returned from the heart of darkness, maybe dark humour doesn’t scare you off after all.

Cineuropa: Given the subject of the film – a group of people living under tyranny – one may think that you wrote Numbers while in prison, but that is not the case. Nevertheless, were you inspired in any way by what was happening in Ukraine or were you anticipating what might happen to you?
Oleg Sentsov:
The play was written in 2011, three years before the events of Maidan [the Ukrainian revolution that resulted in the overthrowing of the government]. Maybe it was kind of a premonition, but there was no way of knowing what would happen to me. But at any rate, this script symbolises what I thought at the time about the necessity to stand up against the injustice that I was witnessing all around me.

Did you change anything in the script during your imprisonment?
No.

You wrote Numbers as a stage play, and this is literally visible in the film – the action takes place on a stage with minimal set design. How did you come up with that style?
I had a very good team and production designer. All of the designs and props were developed over the course of a year, during which [my team and I] exchanged many letters. I was sent a lot of sketches; I saw 15-20 different versions of the props, costumes and stage design, so I was able to check all the visual aspects and approve them. I wanted to make a film that looked like a stage play, as far as the style was concerned.

Why?
Form always follows content, and that particular topic was something that required a form of theatre play. That’s why I didn’t write the script for a movie right away, even though it’s cinema that is dearest to me. I’ve written five scripts that haven’t been turned into films. I have them on hold, as I really want to make them one day.

How did you work with the actors?
That’s not a question for me, because during the shoot, I was in prison. My co-director, Akhtem Seitablaev, did all the work with the actors. But as far as the casting is concerned, I confirmed the choice of each actor. My casting director and Akhtem had worked with me before, so they knew what result I wanted. They sent me photos of the actors and the materials for the costumes so that I could verify whether they looked as I expected them to. That was also the most difficult part because I couldn’t see any [video] excerpts featuring my performers. But on the other hand, I knew I could trust my collaborators.

How did you work with Polish DoP Adam Sikora?
I didn’t communicate with Adam directly. Everything was done through my correspondence with Akhtem. I just gave him an idea of how the film should look – I wanted a theatrical feel and style.

The story is dark, but the ending is even darker. Why do you see no hope for this world?
Well, there was hope, just before the end… This film is a piece of art that warns people to be careful whenever they start a revolution. When you are able to topple the old regime, that does not automatically mean that you are able to build a better one. So right from the start, you have to focus on how to make your reign better, not just new.

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