Courage (2021) Berlinale Competition 2021

March 5th, 2021
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Aliaksei Paluyan; documentary with Maryna Yakubovich, Pavel Haradnizky, Dzianis Tarasenka; BR Deutschland, 89 min.

A spirited and heartfelt documentary debut from Belarusian director Aliaksei Paluyan who explores the aftermath of last year’s presidential election that saw the country’s authoritarian incumbent Alexander Lukashenko (their first and only elected president since 1994) simply staying in office despite mounting mass demonstrations on the grounds of vote rigging. Paluyan anchors his story in the experiences of three actors three from the Free Theatre of Minsk, who left the State Theatre 15 years ago to combine art and politics.

Maryna lives with Dzianis and their baby – the father resentful at having to work as a car mechanic: “I have betrayed art and I am aware of it. Three years ago I left, because the play was only on for eight days before it was censored for Satanism.” Pavel, the third of the actor’s trio, lives with Nadya, the two discussing a way out of the situation: “Everyone in the Free Theatre is blacklisted by the Secret Police”.

During the mass demonstration after the August election, the theatre has to plan their protests carefully: “Not every member of the theatre can demonstrate, leaving only one person in charge of care parcels and lawyers”. The only way they can all show their disdain for the Lukashenko is by building up mountains of lavatory paper in front of the Presidential Palace. Meanwhile the President is safely ensconced behind the walls guarded by the OMON, a Special Police Force inside the Militsya.

A demonstrator shows off his “gentleman’s travel bag”: toothpaste, toothbrush and 3 changes of underwear”. The OMON throws stun grenades at the crowd, who shout back “Join us, for Belarus!” The few who put their shields down are hugged by demonstrators. Maryna and Dzianis discuss breaking headlines that accuse OMON of using live munition in Brest (on the border with Poland) where one man was killed. Obviously their priority is the baby. Dzianis discusses the news with his father, a former OMON member. It’s very much a case of the load being passed down to the next generation. But naturally Dzianis does not want his child to carry the baggage he leaves.

The only route to freedom is through Poland and Lithuania, who accept political prisoners from Belarus, so the actors discuss an escape plan. Meanwhile we join rehearsals in the Free Theatre where the play’s director – Nikolay Khalezin, watched up with the production on Skype from London – one tense scene features an interrogator officiously demanding a confession from a demonstrator. When asked ‘why’ by the defendant, the secret policeman answers: “Because my job is necessary, yours is not.”

These fraught scenes are juxtaposed with more mellow ones – Pavel and Nadya trying to let a wasp out of the window of their pokey flat: in Belarus even insects want to be set free. Every weekend there are mass demonstrations all over the country, OMON answering with charges, huge military vehicles and water cannons. And finally, we see Maryna on stage in “Discover Love”, the story of Iryna Krasaouskaya whose husband was one of the first who “disappeared” and was found murdered in 1999. The number of forced disappearances in authoritarian states all over the world are read out: a staggering figure runs that into millions.

DoPs Tanja Hanrylchik and Jesse Mazuch follow the action with their handheld cameras, taking us to the heart of the crisis with febrile footage desperately conveying these troubled and tumultuous times. AS



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