‘War how it truly is’: Ukrainian director turns accidental footage into a film

In the new film by the Ukrainian director Oleh Sentsov, soldiers pinned down in a trench try to organise the evacuation of a group of fellow fighters who are stuck and wounded in a frontline position.

Sentsov, who spent several years as a political prisoner in Russia and is now fighting in the Ukrainian army, found the 90 minutes of shaky footage six months after the battle. He was going through old files on his GoPro camera and realised it had been switched on that day.

“I was about to delete everything when I found this and I realised I had a very interesting imprint of that battle and of war how it truly is – ugly, incomprehensible, twisted and stupid,” he said in an interview with the Guardian, conducted by video while he was on home leave.

Sentsov said it was hard to call the footage a film in the traditional sense. “A film should be thought out, planned, edited. This is more like a document of war, which was shot accidentally.”

Sentsov, who was born in Crimea, was arrested by Russian authorities and accused of plotting terrorist attacks after Moscow annexed the peninsula in May 2014. The director was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2015 after court proceedings widely condemned as a show trial. He was freed in a prisoner exchange in 2019. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion he has put film-making on hold and is now a lieutenant in the Ukrainian army.

The footage in Real, which will premiere later this month at the Karlovy Vary film festival in the Czech Republic, was shot almost exactly a year ago. Presented unedited, it manages to capture the terror and boredom of life on the frontline.

There are frequent whooshes, whirs and pings as bullets and mortar shells fly overhead. Sentsov’s voice is frequently heard, but the viewer never sees his face. Often, the image is a closeup of a small section of trench, near enough to make out the strands of grass packed into the mud.

The shaky action gradually mesmerises the viewer, as Sentsov attempts to arrange an evacuation for wounded soldiers stuck at a position about a mile away. He has radio communications with the front positions and with the army headquarters, making Sentsov the go-between in the increasingly desperate attempts.

Real is named after the position where the wounded men are stuck – in a surreal twist, all the positions in the battle are named after football teams. Sentsov’s position is Marseille and a nearby position is Chelsea. “Positions always have either names or numbers. People remember names more easily, it’s better than trying to give location coordinates,” said Sentsov.

Related: ‘Information can be bent. Emotions are always honest’: the film at the heart of Ukraine’s agonising evacuations

During the 90 minutes of footage, with a couple of brief exceptions, everyone remains surprisingly calm, even as it becomes clear the situation is taking a turn towards disaster.

“The people who are the most nervous don’t usually end up right at the frontline,” said Sentsov. “People understand that if they stay more or less calm they have more chance of surviving and if they start getting hysterical they will lose everyone. Staying calm is necessary for survival.”

Sentsov recalled a moment from the same day, which took place about an hour before the footage in Real begins. “There was a soldier with the call sign Johnny, a veteran of the Afghan war. He was going there to evacuate the wounded but he was hit, and he managed to make one last radio transmission, in which he said: ‘This is Johnny. I’m dead.’”

The footage in Real finishes as abruptly as it starts, in mid-sentence, with a note that 22 Ukrainian soldiers died at Real. Of the people who are in the trench with Sentsov, whose faces are visible in the film, some have been wounded and three have been killed since the film was shot, said the director.

In Sentsov’s view, the war with Russia is likely to drag on for many years. “At the beginning, I said my most optimistic prediction is two to three years. At the time, people criticised me because it seemed like super-pessimism. If I am asked now I would say 10 years. This is a normal prognosis, and after which we can talk of some kind of victory.”

Sentsov conceded that a year ago there was much more optimism in the air about the possibility of a full Ukrainian victory that would involve taking back Crimea, whereas now people understood it would not be quick. “It’s not going to be a victory where our tanks go into Crimea, Donetsk or Moscow. It will be a victory where we exhaust our enemy so much that the enemy is forced to leave our territories.”

Sentsov has not returned to his native Crimea since he was arrested by Russia in 2014, but said he was confident that one day he would be able to return to Ukrainian Crimea. “The war started there and it will finish there,” he said.

He does not plan to make more films about the war, saying his medium is feature films not documentaries, and that for now he is focused on fighting. “I am not taking part in this war as a director. But after the war, my experiences and memories will certainly become a base for new movies.”