For director Vladlena Sandu (39) the decision to flee to the Netherlands two months ago was not an easy one. She had several important film projects underway in Russia. Her new TV series Identification had just premiered at the Berlinale and was subsequently shown on a Russian streaming platform. The eight-part series centers on Valeria, an orphaned girl who has converted to Islam, lives in an immigrant community and becomes the prime suspect in a murder case at her own wedding. “That series was a big step in my career,” says Sandu, who graduated in 2016 from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow. “That’s why I found it difficult to leave. In addition, my bank account is frozen. I had nowhere to go.”
On February 24, the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sandu stood in Moscow’s Pushkin Square with a poster that read ‘I am for peace’. “I was the only protester and I was immediately arrested,” she says. “Because I did not stand still, but walked around, said an officer, there was talk of a demonstration.”
You can always escape the circle of violence, no matter how difficult that may seem
Many of her friends – from the art and film world – have had the same experience. “Almost all of them have now fled.” In the second week of the war, film production companies received a letter from the Kremlin. It listed which subjects were and were not allowed from that moment on. “Films about a national hero, a strong woman who can survive in times of war, or comedies are still possible, but a film of a friend of mine about a transgender was cancelled.”
The use of the word ‘war’ has already resulted in a maximum prison sentence of fifteen years. And Facebook and Instagram were also only accessible via a banned VPN connection. “When I realized that there was no way to express myself anymore, I decided to leave Russia. It was clear that I did not want to participate in propaganda in a country that has become fascist.”
Sandu knows from his own experience what war is. As a child, she herself experienced four years of war in Chechnya. “I know very well what war does to a person. War destroys everything. As a child you are pure and innocent. War destroys that. I got PTSD from it. For years I couldn’t sleep. As a teenager I struggled with an alcohol problem and didn’t want to live anymore. But making films is a kind of therapy, talking about it feels like a relief.”
The 39-year-old director is staying in an apartment in Amsterdam for two months, thanks to the help of a film maker. On the dining table in the living room is a borrowed Macbook and a microphone – both essential to her work. Furthermore, Sandu lives out of the only suitcase she took with her on her flight from Moscow. She depends on friends for her livelihood. She has no access to her bank account in Russia. Chechen friends bought her plane tickets to the Netherlands for her.
She goes to demonstrations against the war in Ukraine and tries to make her voice heard as much as possible. She is also working on her latest film memorylike much of her work an autobiographical story, for which she last year from the IDFA Bertha Fund received 40,000 euros in subsidy† In the documentary she examines the memories of her childhood. That starts with her name: she was named by her father after Vladimir Lenin. According to her grandfather, only a drug addict could come up with such a name, she recalls.
I had to pick up my mother’s fingers after she was hit by a bomb
Sandu was born in Crimea in 1982, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. Her father was Ukrainian, a DJ and drug addict, her mother a Russian who lived in Chechnya, was an actress and struggled with an alcohol problem and PTSD after the war. Grandpa also had a bad drink – left over from the Second World War. He once chased Vladlena’s mother with an ax and years later, Vladlena would do the same.
After her parents’ divorce, Sandu moved with her mother and grandparents to the Chechen capital of Grozny in 1989. Two years later, the Soviet Union fell apart and during the First Chechen War (1994-1996), Grozny was largely bombed by Russia. Her best friend at the time was Chechen, and for a moment Sandu considered converting to Islam (just like the main character in her TV series Identification† But things turned out differently.
She experienced the most horrific things in Grozny, she says. “Things that no child should experience.” She was ashamed of her Russian nationality, but at the same time was discriminated against. “Stay here, Russians, we need slaves and prostitutes,” she read on placards around town during the war. As a child, she queued for bread but was turned away after a man said she was Russian. A Russian neighbor, who lived a few houses away, was raped and murdered. Sandu found her own grandmother and aunt tied up at home after a robbery by Chechen criminals.
corpses in the snow
At the same time, she saw how Russian soldiers treated the Chechens. As a teenager she saw the bodies lying on the street in the snow. Her school was bombed by the Russians, as was the music school she liked to attend and her own house. While Sandu talks about it, tears roll down her cheeks. Silently: “I had to pick up my mother’s fingers after she was hit by a bomb.”
Her mother survived; in Russia she was able to receive medical treatment. There they were given the status of displaced persons in 1998. When Sandu’s mother later succumbed to the drink, Vladlena was left alone with her grandmother, who plays an important role in her short graduation film Holy God (2016). In it too, Vladlena tells about the war in Chechnya and tries – in vain – to talk about it with her grandmother, who is lying in state in her apartment at the end of the short documentary.
The film, which was awarded at several international festivals, was partly financed by the Russian Ministry of Culture, but initially did not pass the strict rules of censorship. “The film is said to be ‘anti-Russian’,” says Sandu. “But why should my own family history be anti-Russian? I’m just talking about what we’ve been through ourselves. We submitted a new version, in which music was overlaid on my voice at many moments. It was approved. But we just showed the original at film festivals, in Russia but also internationally.”
With the help of a friend, Sandu was able to get a ticket to Dubai in mid-March. From there she flew on to Amsterdam. She already knew the Netherlands well – two of her short films, Holy God and Eight Images from the Life of Nastya Sokolova (2017), were previously shown at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR).
How is she going on with her new movie memory† “I’m about 80 percent ready. We have already shot in Chechnya and Crimea,” says Sandu. “I think we can still finish this film. That gives hope. Maybe the world hasn’t gone completely mad after all.”
It is important to Sandu that the two girls who are her in memory playing as a child are of Chechen descent. “With this I want to convey a universal message: that it is possible to escape the circle of violence, no matter how difficult the circumstances in which you were born.”
According to Sandu, the Netherlands and the EU do not have a clear position when it comes to the reception of Russian refugees who are against the war in Ukraine. “Why is nothing being arranged for us? Our existence is very insecure, while we are in conflict with Putin’s regime.”
She is now continuing that fight from the Netherlands to write letters to Russian soldiers. “They too are victims of Russian propaganda. Soldiers don’t have a nice life. We have a lot of unemployment and poor education in Russia. Soldiers are slaves to the dictatorship. I want to have a personal conversation with them.”
Sandu also hopes that her films and her own war experiences can help others. But do her films reach the right audience? “Of course I think it is important that many people see my films, but as long as the Putin regime is in place, my work will not be broadcast on state television. Still, I get a lot of positive reactions. That people who have seen my work have started to look differently, to ask different questions.”
For the time being, Sandu is staying in the Netherlands on a Spanish visa, but she has to leave the country on 20 June. She doesn’t have a solution yet, she says. She doesn’t qualify for asylum, she thinks. In addition, she is not allowed to work if she applies for asylum. “At least I can’t go back to Russia. Then I am immediately classified as a foreign agent and I disappear in the cell.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of 11 May 2022