There is something very prosaic and passive about the way young Belarusian director Aliaksei Paluyan opens his curiously gentle documentary Courage about the current wave of protests against Alexander Lukashenko, the brutal dictator who has run Belarus for the past 26 years.
Archive footage from protests staged two decades ago positions this as a documentary with a broader, longer-term view than just recounting the explosive events since August 9, 2020, when disputed (largely agreed to be rigged) elections handed Lukashenko another term in power.
A shift to tyranny
The turmoil of last August – when opposition leaders were arrested or, like Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, driven into exile – has abated, the international news crews moved on, and protest turned to smaller, more symbolic – but still regular – actions. Only in early February, two young journalists working for Polish-based TV channel Belsat were imprisoned for live streaming last summer’s protests. That Lukashenko’s long-running dictatorship has shifted into tyranny – imprisoning journalists for simply doing their jobs, not to mention the deaths of several protestors last year – is the discrete undertow to Paluyan’s film.
This is not a documentary that is strong on historical or even current political context. It is enough to know that these (mostly) young Europeans live in a police state where your life can be forfeit at the snap of the fingers from a sinister and well-armed regime.
It is enough to know that these (mostly) young Europeans live in a police state
But the very fact that Belarus sits to the west of Russia and has long been viewed by the Kremlin as a buffer state against NATO and the European Union, helps explain the failure of mass protests that brought hundreds of thousands of ordinary people out onto the streets of Minsk, Gomel, Brest and other towns across Belarus last summer. Lukashenko has never got on very well with Russian president Vladimir Putin – playing push and shove games to obtain cheap oil but avoiding overtures to reunite with his bigger neighbour – but political expediency on both sides drove Lukashenko to seek Russian security guarantees that effectively strengthened his hand during last summer’s protests. Moscow does not want a colour (the protestors in Belarus rally under the old pre-Soviet red and white flag) revolution in his own backyard.
Even without this level of knowledge or context, Courage works at the level of a film showing how ordinary people respond to extraordinary circumstances.
Belarus Free Theatre
Our heroes are all in their 30s or 40s and members of the Belarus Free Theatre – set up as an opposition activity by members of the Minsk State Theatre . . .
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