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A film and a warning

Review of Numbers. A film by Oleg Sentsov and Akhtem Seitablayev, Ukraine-Poland-Czech Republic-France, 2020.

April 26, 2020 - Kateryna Pryshchepa Oleg Sentsov - Books and Reviews

On March 1st the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk held Poland’s premiere screening of Numbers, the second film by Oleg Sentsov. The film was first shown to the Polish public only a few days prior to its screening as part of the Berlin Film Festival’s “Special Selection”. The bulk of work on the film was conducted while Sentsov was held in a Russian hard labour camp in Yakutia.

Work on the film began in 2018 as part of a solidarity campaign during Sentsov’s imprisonment in Russia. Sentsov himself gave instructions for the film during his hunger strike in the Yakutian camp. He was assisted by his lawyer Dmitri Dinze, who was able to pass messages between Sentsov and the rest of the film crew. According to Sentsov, the work on the film and correspondence with the film crew supported him mentally during the hunger strike.

Ukrainian director Akhtem Seitablayev, also from Sentsov’s home of Crimea, acted as the co-director of the film and was working on it directly on site. The film was co-financed by Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture, the Polish Film Institute, Czech Television and Canal+. It is predominantly the result of co-operation between Ukrainian and Polish filmmakers. Both directors and the whole cast are Ukrainian. The cinematography team was led by Polish cameraman Adam Sikora, and the producer’s team by Polish actor and director Dariusz Jabłoński. As one of the film’s co-producers, Małgorzata Jurczak describes the film as the result of co-operation between friends. The sources of the film’s budget included contributions from companies and institutions that have been already involved in the public campaign against Sentsov’s imprisonment.

Numbers is a film based on a play of the same name written by Sentsov in 2011. It tells the story of a closed and suppressed society ruled by pointless procedures, the origins of which are known to no one. The film’s plot follows the events that occur when one of the suppressed “numbers” attempts to challenge the rules and change it for the better. In the end, it turns out that it is not always the best and bravest who can bring about change. It is also shown that the change produced by those who are seemingly meek can lead to an even harsher dictatorship.

Being an adaptation of a theatre play, the film is set in one pavilion. There is only one change of scenery at the very end of the film. The characters live in a secluded space under the rule of armed guards and an invisible supreme ruler. They do not have names, only numbers (hence the film’s title), which reflect their place in the hierarchy of this closed society. The highest in this hierarchy is Zero (played by comedian Viktor Andrienko) or “the Great Zero”, the omnipresent but invisible ruler of society. The guards hold a position between Zero and the rest of the numbers. All the “subject” characters are divided into randomly formed pairs (strictly one male and one female character in each). The female characters have even numbers and the males – odd ones. According to the numbering rules, the females in each pair possess a lower position than the males.

Undoubtedly, the action is easiest to follow for those familiar with Soviet cinematography and literature and the events of the last decades of the USSR. For those with knowledge of daily life in the Soviet and early post-Soviet eras some elements of the scenery and costumes might seem quite natural, vividly resembling artefacts of the recent past. The film takes place in a small, very badly kept sport arena “decorated” with old Soviet sport slogans and an electronic clock – the same model which could be seen in countless Soviet public institutions. The track suits worn by the characters resemble those worn in the 1970s and 1980s. The characters often refer to a large, old journal (of the type commonly seen in Soviet-era institutions), in which the society’s mysterious rules are apparently codified.

Zero – the supreme ruler – shares much in common with the nomenklatura of the late Soviet period. He lives in a small gondola which moves on rails fixed to the ceiling of the pavilion, where all the action of the film takes place. Although extremely powerful, the Great Zero does not seem to be very imaginative. He lives a life defined by the space of his gondola, the trajectory of which is limited by the rails. His living conditions are “luxurious” compared to those experienced by the ordinary numbers, yet they clearly do not represent the height of sophistication. This alludes to Soviet notions of luxury, with even elite consumption habits limited to what is offered by the state. Although avoiding direct contact with his subordinates, Zero openly shares their everyday schedule. For instance, he eats his meals while the rest of the characters receive their rationed food.

Zero appears bored in spite of his status and lifestyle and only takes occasional interest in the life of the numbers, whom he observes from the height of his gondola. He even changes his mind at one point and calls off the execution of one of the numbers, who started to protest against society’s absurd and repressive order of things.

There are also Orwellian allusions in the film. The guards in this absurdist world are called the referees (as in sport), although they wear military uniform and carry guns. Instead of “execution” characters use the word “disqualification”. Sexual intimacy between the characters (the newspeak term for which is “transfer of the relay baton”) is strictly regulated and only allowed at certain times in a space called the “commentator booth”.

According to Sentsov, the story’s fixation on sport is partially accidental. As he explained, he was once subjected to months of biathlon competition coverage, as someone close to him used to watch it on TV. This experience of repetitively watching sport gave Sentsov the idea of a play, where all the characters follow some meaningless rules and perform rituals of unclear origin.

To those familiar with Soviet cinematography, Numbers will arouse memories of Mark Zakharov’s 1988 film To Kill a Dragon. In this film a brave, altruistic young man arrives in a secluded town ruled by a cruel dragon (the embodiment of an authoritarian ruler). Having killed the dragon in an attempt to liberate the town, the young knight soon takes his place, as the town’s citizens are simply incapable of building a different life. The final scene of Numbers demonstrates the oppressive regime imposed by the former Number Seven – a weak and cowardly character – after Zero’s rule was overthrown.

Sentsov explains that while working on the play, he drew on the legacies of the Russian and French revolutions. In spite of this, the plot has clear links with current political trends in Europe. During the screening in Gdańsk, it was clear that the audience saw these parallels. Whilst the film struggles with some difficult scenography, Numbers tells a simple but powerful story about people’s fear of freedom.

Commentary by Oleg Sentsov for New Eastern Europe in conversation with Kateryna Pryshchepa

KATERYNA PRYSHCHEPA: About your impressions of the screening in Berlin. To what extent do you think the audience was able to understand the film and the authors’ ideas?

OLEG SENTSOV: It might be difficult to say yet, as the film was screened only three times so far, but I think they could. I was present at one of the screenings. Although the film might seem rather difficult, it tells a simple story. I heard some commentaries from the audience, who said that the film’s narrative is easy to understand. Although there were also some positive reviews by the film professionals.

To what extent were you able to influence the work on the film?

I had overall control of the work at its preparatory stage. I had a say on the film crew members, who were given clear requirements with regards to the scenery, the makeup and costume design including the smallest detail. Of course, when the actual filming started my input was smaller because I could not be present on the set. So the film represents also the vision of other contributors.

In the last scene of the film there is an episodic role played by a Donbas war veteran Anastasia Shevchenko (known also under her stage name Stasik). Was she specially invited?

I know that segments of the film with Anastasia Shevchenko are used in the trailer, but it was not me who invited her to the film. In fact we never met. In her case I did not make the choice. She was selected as an extra in general casting by the film crew. I selected only the actors playing the “numbers”: Zero to Eleven.

Was Viktor Andrienko, who played Zero in the film, selected this way?

No, I wanted to invite Andrienko personally. I think he is a very talented actor. We have known each other for quite a long time and I specifically wanted him to play Zero. He was the only actor who did not have to go through casting. In fact, the work on the film was somewhat delayed because we had to work out a filming schedule which would be feasible for Andrienko and the rest of the crew.

Did you invite the actors who you know personally?

No. My assistants first worked on the actor selection based on the requirements described by me. After their pre-selection, I made a final choice.

Apart from the allusions to the current political situation in Russia, were there any other reasons why Numbers was chosen by your friends as the basis for the film?

Basically it was the only piece ready to be filmed.

But you have published other literary works in recent years…

Those are fiction pieces, not plays or screenplays. My friends wanted to do a film based on my work. But I didn’t want the plays I wrote before my imprisonment to be worked on by others. I think it was impossible to explain my ideas and the way I saw them staged to somebody else. So they couldn’t make films the way I wanted them to be made. The same issues occurred with the screenplays I had written in prison. They were very complex. My friends then had an idea to turn some of my short stories into films. I didn’t agree to that either as fiction literature is a separate genre. So finally I agreed to stage the play (Numbers). Then there was an idea to make the video version of the play which finally turned into a full film project. And now we have a film which developed out of a theatre play.

The screening of Oleg Sentsov’s film was supported by the Polish division of Amnesty International in solidarity with Ukrainian prisoners being kept in captivity in Russia. On March 1st, visitors to the European Solidarity Centre were invited to join the letter-writing campaign in support of Denys Kashuk – one of the latest Ukrainian political prisoners in Crimea detained in Simferopol in December 2019.

Kateryna Pryshchepa is a Ukrainian journalist, PhD candidate and frequent contributor to New Eastern Europe.

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