good film festivals are not just an assortment of screenings. They provide a
sense of community. Every year, I look forward to fests like Sundance, NYAFF,
and the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Festival because of the people I expect to see
there. That is why the continuation of the Odessa International Film Festival
represents a small but significant victory for Ukraine’s cultural sector.
Unfortunately, there is one particular filmmaker who will not be able to
democracy activist Oleg Sentsov was arrested by the Russian military while
attempting to smuggle food to barricaded Ukrainian military personnel in the
occupied province of Crimea. He is now being held on trumped up terrorism
charges, awaiting a show trial in Moscow. To date, Ukrainian consular personnel
have been denied access to Sentsov, in clear violation of diplomatic law and
custom. In his place, Sentsov will be represented at this year’s inspiringly
defiant OIFF with his 2011 feature directorial debut, Gaamer (trailer
has a special screening this Tuesday.
there are no political implications to be gleamed from Gaamer. The extra “a” represents a distinctively Slavic pronunciation
of “gamer” adopted by video game fanatics in parts of Eastern Europe. Sentsov
was once part of the subculture, just like his protagonist. Alex is an unrepentant
underachiever. However, under his gamer handle Koss, he is one of the top players
of the first-person shooter Quake in
his depressed post-industrial town.
to his long suffering mother’s frustrations, Alex/Koss has been expelled from
his technical school, preferring to idle his time away in a computer gaming
parlor, presumably much like the one Sentsov once managed. When he places
highly in a local tournament, he is recruited by one of the top national teams.
At least he will have free gaming for the near future, but then what?
is tempting to try to read further political significance into the work of
filmmakers like Sentsov or Iranian dissident Jafar Panahi, because you would
think it has to be in there somewhere to justify such heavy-handed human rights
abuses. However, there is absolutely no commentary on neo-Soviet Imperialism to
be found in Gaamer.
it is a film about lifestyle choices and their consequences. Specifically, it
examines the awkward period when gaming loses its thrill. After all, a video
game is by its nature fleeting and apparently Quake is one of those games that always ultimately ends with a player’s
in-game death. So just what does Alex/Koss have to show for his monitor time?
Putin would probably prefer an anesthetized Ukraine, lulled by video games or
whatever into a state of extreme myopia. In that limited sense, Gaamer’s get-out-and-get-involved-in-life
message is somewhat at odds with his expansionist agenda. However, the truth of
the matter is Sentsov was simply rounded up for being a prominent ethnic
Ukrainian in the Crimea, with a history of democratic activism.
Sentsov also understands the characters of Gaamer
and the worlds in which they interact. Vladislav Zhuk is totally convincing
as the socially underdeveloped Alex/Koss, but his distant, cipher-like nature
is sometimes frustrating. While it is not exactly a showy role, Zhanna Biryuk
perfectly calibrates her performance as his mother.
things considered, Gaamer is a very
promising first feature. It has its odd rough edges and pacing issues here and
there, but those who see it would be intrigued enough look out for Sentsov’s
follow-up film. Unfortunately, production on what was to be called Rhino was postponed due to the Maidan
Square protests and the Russian invasion. Any serious filmmaker like Sentsov
deserves to have a chance to develop his art over the course of several
pictures, but his abduction and incarceration now makes that impossible. Even
Putin-approved filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov has (somewhat boldly) joined the
chorus of voices demanding his release.
you happen to be in Odessa, attending the screening of Gaamer this Tuesday (7/15) would be a great way to show solidarity,
while seeing a good movie in the process. For the rest of us, light up the
social networks and online petitions. Free Oleg Sentsov.
Labels: OIFF '14, Oleg Sentsov, Ukraine, Ukrainian Film