Film fest to frontline: Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov

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It was less than a year ago that Ukrainian movie director Oleg Sentsov was presenting his latest film "Rhino" at the prestigious Venice film festival.

But after Moscow's troops invaded his country, the filmmaker -- who spent several years imprisoned in Russia -- put his work on hold and joined the fighting on the frontline.

"I've had several lives and I regret nothing," says the 46-year-old director, now a member of a Ukrainian special forces unit stationed in the country's east.

In an interview with AFP on his day off in the city of Kramatorsk, the tall, imposing filmmaker recounts a path that took him from cinema work to a hunger strike in a Russian jail and now to the trenches of Donbas.

Sentsov has always been politically active. He took part in the 2013 Maidan uprising that ousted a pro-Kremlin president in Ukraine and then joined demonstrations in his native Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Later the same year, the director of the internationally acclaimed film "Gamer" (2011) was arrested by Russia and sentenced to 20 years in jail on terrorism charges.

Thrown behind bars in Siberia, Sentsov staged a hunger strike for 144 days before he was released in 2019 as part of a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine.

His jailing was met with international outcry and sent shockwaves through the cinema world with European directors such as Pedro Almodovar and Wim Wenders appealing for his release.

While behind bars, Sentsov was in 2018 awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

- Shooting down helicopters -

"I had some rest in a Russian prison, after that I returned to cinema and now I am in the army," the director says.

"I don't know what I will do in 10 years' time, because I have changed my life many times."

When President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Ukraine on February 24, Sentsov stepped out from behind the camera. He moved his family to safety in western Ukraine and then, like many Ukrainian men, returned to fight.

"I took my family to Lviv, then I came back to engage in territorial defence in Kyiv", Ukraine's capital that was then under Russian attack, he says.

With no military training, the director spent a few weeks at checkpoints before going to the frontline north of the capital.

Since then he has continued to train and "learn", and was moved to a special forces unit responsible for shooting down Russian helicopters and drones.

"I am part of an intelligence unit supporting and defending groups operating, in particular, the Stinger," he says referring to an air-defence system used to target low-flying aircraft.

- 'Real test' -

Asked whether he misses his work in the film industry, Sentsov says that it is only "part" of his life.

"An important one, but only a part," he says, adding that he was unable to watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's address at Cannes in May.

"Today we live in a totally different world where everything has to do with war," he says.

Last month he was stationed near Bakhmut, one of the few cities in the east still in Ukrainian hands that has been under attack from Russian forces which seek to take full control of the eastern Donbas region.

After their positions came under heavy fire, "we couldn't bring back all the bodies", he says.

But Sentsov is convinced that Ukraine will prevail.

"In any case, Ukraine will win this war, because it is waging a war for its existence," he says.

"Russia wants to take back their old colony of Ukraine, but Ukraine is not a colony. Ukraine is an independent country," he says, condemning the Kremlin's "claustrophobic, xenophobic and imperial visions".

Even during wartime life goes on and in early July Sentsov, who has two children from a previous marriage, remarried in Kyiv.

"War is a real test and you shed unnecessary things. Only the crucial things remain: love, family and the children you fight for," he says.

"Life is more than just cinema."

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