EXCLUSIVE: The trial of the detained Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov is expected “not before the end of July”, according to his cousin Natalja Kaplan.

Oleg Sentsov

Speaking at the opening of Berlin’s first Ukrainian Film Days held in solidarity with the director, Kaplan said that Sentsov has been moved from the prison in Moscow to await his trial in Rostov on the Don,  more than 14 months after his arrest by the Russian security services in Crimea in May 2014.

The trial date had been postponed on several occasions, most recently in May when it was said that the trial proceedings would begin by July 11 at the latest, two  days before Sentsov’s birthday on July 13.

Kaplan, who is regularly in contact with her cousin and has attended his previous court appearances, said that Sentsov has “prepared himself for the fact that he will receive a sentence of 20 years, but this system will not survive the 20 years.”

She told an audience which included the European Film Academy’s (EFA) Marion Döring, the Berlinale’s Wieland Speck, film director Sergei Loznitsa and Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg CEO Kirsten Niehuus that Sentsov “has very good lawyers who have great success with political trials, but they can’t do everything.”

Andrij Melnyk, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Germany, said that, despite the Russians’ intractable position, Ukraine’s consular officials would continue to try and obtain the release of the Ukrainians currently detained in Russia and called on the Merkel administration to exert pressure on the Russian government.

Meanwhile, Philipp Illienko, Head of the Ukrainian State Film Agency (USFA), argued that “it is clear for us that Oleg is a hostage in this undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine” and welcomed the staging of the Film Days in Berlin as a way of drawing attention within the international community to the current situation.

“It is important that his case is not forgotten,” added Marion Döring, pointing out that the EFA has been collecting donations to help his family and contribute to the legal costs for his defence as well sending letters of petition to Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin and his Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky.

No answer has been forthcoming from Putin’s office, while Medinsky claimed to have any responsibility for responding to this case.

No more co-productions with Russia

In an exclusive interview with Screen Daily after the Film Days’ opening ceremony,  Philipp Illienko spoke about co-producing with Russia and the current situation in the Ukrainian film industry.

“It would be crazy to co-produce with Russia with this war still going on,” he declared. “We would be financing the system who is imprisoning our people.”

“I don’t want to co-produce with the aggressor,” Illienko added.

In the past, there had often been co-productions between the two countries – for example, Sergey Mokritskiy’s blockbuster Battle Of Sevastopol (known as Unbreakable in Ukraine) had been a majority Ukrainian-Russian co-production with the USFA putting up a third of the Ukrainian co-producers 73% share.

The last other co-productions were Alexey German Jr.’s Berlinale competition film Under Electric Clouds and Ilya Krzhanovsky’s marathon project Dau.

Moreover, Kiev used to be a kind of Hollywood for Russia bringing lots of money and employment to the region as many Russian TV series and films shot in Ukraine and made use of the postproduction services there.

This all came to an end with the worsening political situation between the two countries.

Budget news

Illienko recalled that the USFA budget for 2014 had initially been  $5.7m (UAH120m), but after last summer’s events in Ukraine, the budget for production support was slashed to $2.6m (UAH56m).

Only around 46% of this was paid out to the producers for their productions, while most projects had to be postponed or put on ice.

The situation was further complicated by the weakening of the Ukrainian currency as Hrvynia (UAH)-Dollar exchange rate moved from 8 Hrvynias for $1 to 16, and finally 21.

This year, the USFA’s general budget of $3.52m (UAH74m) has $3m (HRN 64m allocated specifically for funding film production

Illienko revealed that, as of last Friday (June 26), the Film Agency had now paid out the amounts owing to producers from last year and managed to pay off its debts.

“But the 2015 budget could not be used to allocate funding to new productions, so we need the government to provide us with more money. Then we could have another pitching session in order to select new projects for funding and ensure a continuity of production into the future. Otherwise, we could be faced with a black hole where there are no films in production.”

Fortunately, he had more good news to report in Berlin as the collegium of the Ministry of Culture convened last Friday, which was attended by the Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk who indicated that he will give an additional budget for film production.

This decision is subject to a vote by the parliamentary coalition and would mean that financing of new film projects  could start before the end of 2015.

Illienko added that he was looking for “a more productive relationship” with Ukrainian TV channels which could be a greater supporter of local film production in both the arthouse and mainstream sectors.

He explained that the market share for Ukrainian films at the local box office is currently low, “but there is potential as the example of The Guide showed. It set a record for the local market with $2.85m (UAH60m) box office and competed very well with Hollywood titles like Interstellar.”

“It is important that Ukrainian films attract new audiences into the cinemas,” he continued, pointing out that one third of the cinema-goers for The Guide was apparently for audiences coming to the cinema for the first time.

However, he stressed that the Film Agency was not intending to only focus on mainstream production, but would also be open to arthouse, international co-productions, documentaries, shorts, debuts and experimental work as part of its portfolio.

New funding sources

Looking to the future, Illienko said he was aiming for Ukraine to become a member of the pan-European co-production fund Eurimages and examining ways of increasing the sources of public film funding.

The French and UK funding systems have been analysed, with the USFA favouring the UK’s lottery funding mechanism for culture and cinema. Prime-Minister Yatsenyuk had also spoken about the lottery option during an open meeting at the Ministry of Culture .

Moreover, a new law for state support of the film industry is currently being drafted under the Vice Prime-Minister and Minister of Culture Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, with the possibility of the bill being presented to the government for a vote during July.