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As the migrant situation in Belarus escalates, documentary Courage at Inverness Film Festival offered a chilling insight into last year's 'election' of the dictator/ president Lukashenko and the national protests surrounding it

By Margaret Chrystall

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REVIEW: Inverness Film Festival

Courage (15+) ****

Courage is a good title for this film documenting the protests around the fixed presidential elections last year (2020) in Belarus through the lives of those involved in an underground theatre group in capital Minsk.

The account also feeds into the latest news in the country.

Courage, flowers support the people.
Courage, flowers support the people.

In August this year president/ dictator Alexander Lukashenko's Belarusian officials were recorded on camera near the Belarus-Lithuania border pushing migrants to cross the European Union border. They were also accused of the same at the Belarus-Poland border.

And the latest today (Wednesday) is that the Polish authorities believe the border crisis could go on for months. The Russians are now massing forces on the other side of Belarus on their border with Ukraine. The European Union has accused the dictator of funneling migrants through his country to Poland to fight back against sanctions that have been imposed on his regime after the fixed 2020 presidential elections.

In Courage, director Aliaksei Paluyan sets the scene for his film with old footage where people on grainy film hold up photographs of their missing, a reminder that these people of Belarus have struggled for generations against the most brutal tactics by their government to contain and control them.

Then the film arrives in a more modern era where masked men with batons and shields line up, run at a crowd and use their batons on them. A man in a suit looks on – possibly president/dictator Lukashenko. It cuts to a small group of people dressed in black, burning a pile of something held up in front of them – a memorial? – the light from the flames playing across their faces. Some of them become familiar later as actors who are our guides to life in Belarus and working at an underground theatre.

In the documentary you see the vast number of people who turn out for massed protests.
In the documentary you see the vast number of people who turn out for massed protests.

The film reveals the protests of the Belarus people in the run up to the 2020 election and after last year, in parallel with the efforts of the theatre company to present their next play.

It all comes together through the actors, the stories of their work and home life and their part in the many protests we see escalating.

Actor Pavel sings a funny song at his piano in his home while his cat stares suspiciously into the camera.

Denis we meet working in a car paintshop, blacklisted so no theatre company can hire him, but an excerpt from a satirical song from a past performance giving us a taste of what he’s lost.

And actress Maryna, one of the people behind the burning offerings at the start, we meet giving her cute toddler breakfast before leaving for work at the theatre company.

Excerpts from the plays they are performing punctuate the extensive coverage of the marches, their director giving pointers in exile on a laptop to the actors in Minsk.

Huge numbers of people assemble with chants we get to know as well, no doubt, as the police and special forces (OMON) sent to push them back, contain, sometimes attack and arrest them.

The Belaruan flag gets an airing as black-clad troops look on.
The Belaruan flag gets an airing as black-clad troops look on.

One of the most powerful scenes comes when a group of relatives and friends wait outside a detention centre, asking for the list of names of those inside. An older woman is in tears.

"Tell me if he is alive!" she wails.

But an older man addresses the masked guards watching the crowd.

“We will tear you apart for our children,” he threatens quietly.

The theatre friends phone each other on election day, one telling the other the result is already out from one polling station. Blacklisted actor Denis wants to wait at home to hear the result before heading out to join the protest that will follow what most believe is already a fixed result in Lukachschenko’s favour. On guitar, he plays a song with lyrics that go ‘Destroy the prison walls/ If you want freedom, take it’, and soon Pavel is joining in at the piano.

Later, Pavel compares with another protestor what he has in his small rucksack in case they are arrested – three underpants and loo roll enough for ‘one sheet a day’. There has already been a conversation with the exiled director and him about preparations that have been made if theatre employees are going to have to flee Belarus.

Throughout at the protests, we get to know the “Shame! Shame!” and “Go Away! Go Away!” chants of huge, massed crowds of thousands.

In a scene from the second play we see them performing to an audience at their theatre, the real-life widow of a former opposition politician who disappeared, speaks to the audience via a laptop screen, after the actors have played out his brutal fate.

Earlier in the film, we see one of the actors disappear from the protests for a while after practising using a crossbow on a target in a car park, perhaps taking a backward step for a while from putting himself on the line constantly.

And the young blonde actress and mum discusses with her partner at home what to do.

Sometimes police declare their support for the protesting crowds, allowing flowers to be attached to their riot shields.

“Even if they lay down their shields, what happens the next day?” Maryna says. “What’s best for our child? To lose one of their parents or live in a free country?”

Her partner adds: “My father said ‘Everything we failed to do is on your shoulders’.”

You sense they will keep on protesting.

The film paints a compelling picture of a real-life population battling for a different life and future. Extremely naturalistic, it is documentary that takes you behind the scenes of the news reports.

The bravery of the people of Belarus to keep coming out on the streets and protesting despite the risk of being beaten, arrested or never being heard of again, is what comes across so movingly in this beautifully-told real life story of what fighting for what you believe in in the face of a corrupt, brutal regime really looks like. It’s their quiet rage that comes across and, for most, an unshakeable commitment to keep on risking all to take to the streets.

In the words of their own marching slogan “Long live Belarus!”.

Short review: The story – through the lives of an underground theatre company – is the 2020 Belarus presidential election that saw a hated dictator returned to power, despite the constant protests of its people.

Best quote: An older woman in beautiful flower-embroidered traditional costume, carrying a flower at the front of protest, asks a policeman filming her: “Young man, what are you filming for. We are not in a prison camp here?”


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