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Russian 'show trial' film aims to turn up heat on Moscow
Oleg Sentsov is a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in Siberia and the target of a global campaign to free him, with stars like Johnny Depp wearing his solidarity T-shirt.
Now he's also the subject of "The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov", a chilling Russian documentary showing at the Berlin film festival Saturday, taking aim at what it calls the use of Soviet-style "show trials" to silence opposition today.
Sentsov, 40, a pro-EU activist, was convicted of terrorism in 2015 for arson attacks on pro-Kremlin party offices in Russian-annexed Crimea and sentenced to 20 years in a Siberian prison.
The verdict drew strong condemnation from Kiev, the European Union and fellow filmmakers including Germany's Wim Wenders, who appear in the film to offer their support.
The Voice Project advocacy group to free jailed artists has also taken up his cause, with Depp last November posing in one of its T-shirts bearing Sentsov's name.
The documentary's Russian director Askold Kurov, 42, admitted in an interview with AFP that it would be an uphill battle to secure Sentsov's liberation.
"Yes, I believe (the film) can increase the pressure on the Russian authorities (but) they don't care about any pressure," he said.
Born in the Crimean city of Simferopol, Sentsov is seen on screen as the budding young director behind the 2011 feature "Gamer" about the shadowy world of competitive computer gaming.
But when Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014, Sentsov, a father of two, was detained, accused of being a militant with the Ukrainian ultranationalist movement Right Sector.
- 'Kafkaesque' -
Kurov, who filmed much of the trial, said the proceedings revealed deep procedural flaws and quotes an expert in the film who draws parallels with Communist-era show trials.
"The whole trial was a very Kafkaesque story because they didn't have any real evidence, any real witnesses," the director said.
"It looks like a theatre. Judges know the results before they start the trials."
Sentsov is seen throughout the proceedings in a steel cage, often flashing the victory sign for the camera as he musters a wan smile.
In a devastating scene towards the end, a star witness for the prosecution tells the court he confessed under torture. Another "co-conspirator" fails a lie-detector test.
The documentary builds to a rousing climax, in which Sentsov denounces his accusers including the feared FSB security service, calling it the "Federal Service of Banditry".
"I know that the rule of the bloodthirsty dwarves will end sooner rather than later," he says acidly, dismissing the judges as a "court of occupiers" and quoting from the long-banned Mikhail Bulgakov Soviet-era satire "Master and Margarita".
"Cowardice is the most terrible sin on Earth," he says.
Kiev sees the film's Berlin premiere as a chance to raise the case's international profile.
"When there are so many colleagues coming to such a large festival and again talking about Sentsov -- this is very important," Ukraine's Culture Minister Yevgen Nishchuk said.
"Unfortunately, the health of both Oleg Sentsov and our other compatriots (in Russian prisons) is failing. And time, unfortunately, is not on our side."
- 'Tired of being afraid' -
His family holds out faint hope that the spotlight will prompt the Russian government to shorten the sentence.
"The only thing we can expect is that international pressure on Russia grows," his cousin Natalia Kaplan told AFP.
Kurov looks to the cases of former oil tycoon and Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot, freed in 2013 ahead of the Olympic Games in Sochi.
"I believe they're just waiting for a moment when they can (release) Oleg or any political prisoners," he said.
Kurov, his blue eyes sunken in a gaunt face, shrugged when asked what reaction his film might have at home.
Keenly aware of the risks he himself faces with the documentary, he said it was a way of standing up to intimidation.
"I passed this period in my life when I was frightened and that sort of paranoia. I was scared about this movie, about my family, my relatives, about the materials I had for this film," he said.
But he added: "I'm not brave, I'm not an activist but I'm really tired of being afraid."
The Berlin film festival runs until February 19.