Art under authoritarianism: the documentary portraying the courage of Belarus’ pro-democracy protesters

The people of Belarus have now been protesting against dictator Alexander Lukashenko for over 200 days. As Courage premieres at the 2021 Berlinale, director Aliaksei Paluyan explains the difficulties of making the documentary — and the danger artists face when standing up to the regime. 

17 March 2021

Change is in the air: both in the unmissable sound of “Peremen!”, (“Changes!”) by Soviet rock band Kino, the anthem of the pro-democracy protests playing out of countless car speakers across Belarus; and in the bravery of the Belarusian people, hundreds of thousands of whom have taken to the streets following the country’s disputed presidential elections in August. For director Aliaksei Paluyan, the moral imperative is clear: use filmmaking to reflect the ongoing crisis.

Aliaksei Paluyan’s documentary film Courage, premiered at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival, tells the story of three members of the Belarus Free Theatre: a state-blacklisted activist group established in 2005 to speak the truth about Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s oppressive regime through plays on themes such as political repression, homosexuality, or the death penalty — all topics which the government tirelessly tries to suppress. “I had one burning question,” Paluyan tells The Calvert Journal, “What is the role of independent artists in authoritarian countries like Belarus?”

Belarus has been ruled by Lukashenko for six consecutive terms since 1994, and his elections are constantly marred by accusations of fraud. After presidential elections on 9 August 2020, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, standing as an opposition candidate in the place of her husband, political blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, after he was jailed on 29 May, claimed to have won 60 per cent of the vote. The official results, meanwhile, gave Lukashenko 80 per cent. The people of Belarus took to the streets to voice their anger, only to be brutally beaten and detained en masse by the police.

Read more Coming of age: how the Belarus Free Theatre is still fighting on after 15 years on the edge

Although Paluyan started shooting his documentary in 2018, the central question of the film evolved over the years, especially before and after the events of the elections. Paluyan wanted to make the difficulty of creating theatre in an authoritarian nation “visible, because if you don’t live in a country like Belarus, you wouldn’t be able to understand what these artists are thinking all day. Maybe someone in the audience is from the KGB. This brings you to silence, but to be silent as an artist is very bad. Your main role is to speak honestly.”
The arc of the film changes drastically as the theatre prepares for the upcoming election, with the director-in-exile Niсolai Khalezin — who has been living in London with co-founder Natalia Kaliada since 2010 — warning members over video that it will be difficult to keep the theatre running if all of them are arrested at protests. As the elections loom, the ensemble’s members are acutely aware of the brutality to come, and pack extra pairs of underwear and toothbrushes for an almost inevitable jail time.

Courage follows ensemble members Maryna Yakubovich, Pavel Haradnizky, and Denis Tarasenka, as they move from the theatre into the public space, joining the huge groundswell of people who took to the streets in the aftermath of the election. The protests are intertwined with difficult private scenes as they debate the use of art, their hopes for the future, and whether it’s simply better to leave the country entirely. Paluyan says he wanted to capture the range of emotions one can go through while taking on such a brutal regime. “Courage is not just about being on the stage and crying loudly. Courage is also a process, and during this process, you have the whole palette of emotions: angst, depression, euphoria, and pain. I wanted to reflect this process and these emotions in the film.”

Using a widescreen ratio and a clear depth of frame, the images of cinematographers Tanya Haurylchyk and Jesse Mazuch bring stunning high-definition clarity and emotion to scenes previously seen through news coverage, grainy phone recordings, and the testimony of witnesses. Most striking are the shots of young members of the OMON, the brutal Belarusian riot police, as women give them hugs and flowers. “I tried to show the eyes because eyes can’t lie. All these people are going to the same shops as us. I imagine there’s 20 to 30 per cent of OMON members that are really crazy and it’s not possible to change their minds,” explains Paluyan. “Our goal, the goal of the protestors, is to work with the other 70 per cent.”

In a country that ranks 153th in the world when it comes to press freedom according to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, the real miracle of Courage is that Paluyan was able to transport it out of Belarus in one piece. Other documentarians, like Maksim Shved, who was arrested on 9 August while filming, weren’t so lucky. Ultimately, Paluyan had to decide between shooting more or making sure to capitalise on what he already had. “At the end of August, it became clear that the situation for filmmakers was becoming more dangerous everyday. ‘Maybe it’s time to bring this material to a safe space,’ I thought to myself, to bring the truth to the world.”

“I stand behind this film and behind my people. I’m thinking the whole day about those who are in jail, and that gives me the energy and power to go”

The film’s inclusion in the Special strand of the Berlinale makes it the most significant Belarusian film to ever participate in the festival. Paluyan, who has lived in Germany since 2012, and whose film was funded by HessenFilm and German Films, appreciates the symbolic venue of the premiere. “I see these parallels between people from Belarus that are fighting right now to [the protests in] East Berlin in the 80s,” he explains. Yet, this premiere may cause him problems returning home. “I don’t really know what I could expect in Belarus. It’s a very painful question for me. But, at the same time, I have no other choice. I stand behind this film and behind my people. I couldn’t imagine not bringing this film to festivals. I’m thinking the whole day about those who are in jail, and that gives me the energy and power to go.”

Both Haradnizky and Tarasenka, who are also members of the band RSP, recently spent two weeks in jail for performing a concert critical of the regime — another sign of the brutal price Belarusians pay for exercising their free speech. The question, according to Paluyan, is whether the West is willing to do more to help: “The EU is a tiger without teeth,” he argues. “This is not the time to release statements. It is time to act.”

Courage opens with footage of protests in the 90s, drawing a through line between the decades. Belarus has seen protest movements before. But this time, Paluyan believes, Lukashenko won’t be able to keep them down: “It’s not possible to suppress the feelings of millions of people.”

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