Source: Karlovy Vary


Director Oleh Sentsov joined the Ukrainian Defence Forces after Russia’s full scale invasion of the country in 2022. His documentary Real, which world premieres this week at Karlovy Vary, was filmed while he was serving as lieutenant during a battle on the Ukrainian front line in summer 2023. 

Real all takes place in real time over 90-minutes within the confines of one Ukrainian-held trench. It doesn’t show the fighting itself – this takes place off screen. Instead, the sounds of battle are all-around as Sentsov tries to organise via the radio the evacuation of part of his unit encircled by Russian troops.

Sentsov’s first feature Gamer premiered at Rotterdam in 2012. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Sentsov was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. In 2018, he went on hunger strike, later receiving the European Parliament‘s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, before being released in September 2019, as part of a prisoner exchange deal. Oleh’s next film Rhino world premiered in Venice’s Horizons section in 2021.

Real is an Arthouse Traffic and Cry Cinema production, in co-production with Propeler Film and Downey Ink.

Screen spoke with Sentsov at Karlovy Vary, just before he met at the festival with Czech president Petr Pavel to discuss the war in Ukraine.

Oleh Sentsov

Source: Karlovy Vary

Oleh Sentsov

How does it feel to be here in Karlovy Vary?

It feels like a fairy tale. It’s my first time in two and a half years being outside Ukraine and away from the front line.

Was is it difficult to get here from Ukraine?

Yes. I’m a combatant so it’s very hard to get out from the country. You need a bunch of people to allow you do this. Then, from a logistical standpoint, it took us 48 hours to get here. Before the war, it would have taken two hours.

How did the film come about? I heard you filmed it by accident.

It was during one day of the Ukrainian counter offensive. Early that early morning, I took my men to their position, called Real [after Real Madrid football club]. I was going back to bring more people to the trenches. But the Russians started to attack, and they cut off the connection with Real. The Bradley [armoured fighting vehicle] I was in was damaged. I was running, trying to fix my helmet and tried to touch my camera to see if it was still there. Apparently I turned it on and the camera ran until the battery ran out.

What we see in the film happens between about 9am and 10.25am. But the battle itself started at 4am in the morning and lasted until 8pm that night.

Six months later, I discovered this huge file when I was trying to free-up the memory [on my computer]. I watched it and thought, ‘Maybe there is something of interest in this?’ I sent it to my producer, who said, ‘Well, it’s really interesting, but it’s hard to say. Let’s gather friends and people from the industry in a small cinema and watch that together and see what they think.’ It was uncomfortable to watch. But they were saying it was like an immersive experience, that it was a document of the war and that it’s worth showing to other people.

The fact you can’t see anything of the battle, but you can only hear things, is very powerful.

Yes, what you see in this movie is exactly what anyone in the infantry could see. 90% of the information they gather [in a trench] is based only on sound. They learn how to recognise what it means, where it’s coming from, and where it is goes. If you want to see something, you can take a terrible risk and put your head up a bit. But even if you do this, you will see nothing. The only time we do this is when we are interacting very close to the enemy.

What is the situation like now in Ukraine?

Putin and his army are pushing very hard. He has bet everything on this. I am not very optimistic, and I would say that Ukraine is getting exhausted right now. But it does not mean that we will not keep fighting. But it’s very, very difficult for us.

When do you expect to have to go back to the front line?

Right after the festival.

What do you hope the film will achieve? And what happens next with the film?

My main goal is for people who know about the war in Ukraine to watch, and to recognise how hard it is. Then they will understand that Ukraine needs support and also that Ukrainians will keep fighting. We can fight without support, but can’t win without support. The goal of this movie is to assure that support.