The Rhino of Kyiv

Oleh Sentsov’s latest film is making the festival circuit, while the writer-director serves in Ukraine’s territorial-defense forces.

Ukrainian director Oleh Sentsov
Laurent Van der Stockt / Le Monde / Getty

About the author: Elliot Ackerman is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and author of the novel Red Dress in Black and White. He is a former Marine who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Ukrainian writer-director Oleh Sentsov will not be at the Venice Film Festival this year; or the one in Sofia, Bulgaria; or the one in Istanbul; or any of the others where his film Rhino is premiering. When I met Sentsov in Kyiv, it wasn’t as a filmmaker but rather as a soldier. My train from Lviv arrived late, after curfew, and the police informed me that regardless of my press pass, I would have to sleep in the station. Eventually I was able to hitch a ride to my hotel with the Red Cross, but, in the process of trying to avoid a night on the floor of the station, a friend put me in touch with Sentsov, who was nearby and offered to help. This was how I found myself having breakfast with him in a basement restaurant the following morning. I was interested in talking about Rhino, which I hadn’t yet seen. He was far more interested in talking about the war.

Sentsov, like many Ukrainians, was eager to point out that Russia’s current assault on Ukraine is simply an escalation of a war it has waged since 2014, when it annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas. That year, Russian authorities arrested Sentsov, a native of Crimea, on charges of “suspicion of plotting terrorist acts.” He was sentenced to 20 years and shipped to an Arctic prison. He endured torture and, to protest his conditions, survived a 145-day hunger strike. After five years, the Russians released him in a prisoner swap.

As we sat in the restaurant, Sentsov brought up a map on his phone’s partially shattered screen. He pointed to Hostomel, a suburb of Kyiv near the Dnipro River. The unit in the territorial-defense forces of which he is deputy commander comprises about 75 soldiers. When I asked him his rank—lieutenant, captain, major—he said he didn’t have one. When I asked him his unit’s designation—a platoon, a company, or even a battalion—he said they simply called themselves “a squad.” Rank and formal military terms weren’t something they worried about. “We don’t need organization in that way,” he explained. “What matters is that each person does their part against the orcs.”

Every side in war chooses a derogatory name for its adversary, and the Ukrainians seem to have settled on theirs for the Russians. There is also, in war, a phenomenon in which names of ordinary places assume exalted status when they become synonymous with battlefield victories. As Sentsov traced last month’s fighting north of Kyiv on his phone, a few of the neighborhoods he pointed out—Irpin, Moschun, Horenka—were already becoming part of this lexicon of valor. Sentsov said he was unsurprised by the Russian military’s poor performance. “Some of our volunteers in the territorial defense,” he noted, “served in the Soviet army, in Afghanistan. We know what the Russians are and are not capable of.”

Sentsov had a bad cough. He apologized, attributing it to many weeks spent sleeping in a trench in the cold. “One of the lessons you learn as a soldier,” he said, “is that your first weapon is not a rifle; it’s a spade.” When I asked what else soldiering had taught him, he laughed. “To survive in war, you have to learn many lessons very quickly. But the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that the real face of war, its true face, is one you can’t read about or watch on the news. You must see it with your own eyes.”

Conveying war’s true face sounded like a great challenge for a filmmaker, and soon Sentsov and I were discussing the war films directed by Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone, and Francis Ford Coppola, which captured something authentic and enduring. The finest films about war, he noted, were typically made long after the wars they portrayed. “You need time,” he added, “to separate from the events. You should only shoot about things you know well, and you must do so with a calm head—not a calm heart—but a calm head.”

Rhino, Sentsov’s latest, takes its title from the film’s eponymous protagonist, a young Ukrainian gangster whose nickname derives from the bruises and welts, earned in street brawls, that—according to his friends—have become a permanent fixture on his face, like the horn of a rhinoceros. It is a coming-of-age tale, set during the wild and hedonistic post-Communist ’90s, after Ukraine’s independence.

Sentsov insisted it wasn’t a political film. However, in nearly the same breath, he explained that to understand Vladimir Putin, one must understand both the ’80s and ’90s, decades that respectively embody two sides of Putin’s psyche. In the ’80s, Putin served as a KGB officer, a rule-bound instrument of the state. In the ’90s, Putin was, Sentsov claimed, a St. Petersburg gangster, like Rhino. In the film, when Rhino reflects on the trajectory of other gangsters’ careers, he observes, “The sly ones became politicians.”

It’s difficult not to read politics into Rhino’s suffering too, which at times seems analogous to Ukraine’s and, the more I learned of Sentsov’s story, his own. While Sentsov was in custody, he says, Russian authorities tortured him; however, when confronted by Sentsov’s lawyers, the Russians refused to open an investigation into the allegations, suggesting that Sentsov’s wounds were self-inflicted and that he was a sadomasochist. In Rhino, there are gruesome scenes of torture I’d rather not describe. Watching them, I felt as though I were watching Sentsov indict his torturers.

We spent the rest of the morning discussing war’s literature. One of Sentsov’s favorites is “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” by J. D. Salinger, a short story about a traumatized combat veteran of the Second World War. Sentsov noted that, aside from this story, Salinger wrote little about the war, and that his legacy isn’t one of a war writer. I offered a different interpretation of Salinger—who landed on D-Day, fought in the Hürtgen Forest, and helped liberate Dachau. I’ve always maintained that Salinger wrote perhaps the greatest novel of World War II, The Catcher in the Rye, but he did so by handling his subject obliquely. Holden Caulfield’s voice, for which the novel is renowned, is the voice of a war veteran, to whom everyone is “a phony” and who wants to visit the ducks in Central Park to recover an innocence that will never return and perhaps never was. The novel’s last lines—“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody”—are the quintessential sentiment of a combat veteran marked by loss.

Sentsov said he also liked The Catcher in the Rye, but that “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” remained his favorite. He pulled up the map on his phone again, this time showing me not battlefield positions, but rather neighborhoods around downtown Ukraine where I could still see the posters for Rhino, the ones promoters had plastered up in anticipation of its release, before the Russian invasion. He showed me a photograph of himself in a tuxedo standing on a red carpet in front of one of these posters, his date on his arm, the two of them smiling for the cameras. “This was at the Kyiv premiere,” he said. When I asked when that was, he stared up at the ceiling, as if assembling a puzzle of memories. “Five, six weeks ago.”

“Do you think you’ll ever make a film about the war?” I asked.

He said he wasn’t sure; he needed distance. He joked that perhaps he’d wind up like Salinger and make a film about the war by making a film about something else entirely.

“When the war’s over,” I said, “I hope you make a film about it.”

Then he corrected me. “We don’t say, ‘When the war is over.’ That’s not the language we use. We say, ‘After the victory.’” He coughed again. “Right now, I’m not thinking about films. I’m not a filmmaker. I’m a soldier until the victory.”