How are citizens best able to resist an authoritarian regime when brute strength is on the side of a repressive state apparatus to overpower dissenting crowds, and is it a duty to protest, even at the risk of arrest and torture? If nobody is willing to take to the streets, how can dictators ever be overthrown or mass movements initiated? This dilemma is again an urgent topic of debate, as public opposition within Russia to Putin’s war in Ukraine has been muted, and Russians have been fleeing the country in overwhelming numbers rather than protesting the invasion.
Before Russia’s imperialist abuses on the world stage brought issues around revolt to fever-pitch, the Belarusian population across the border were navigating similar concerns regarding Putin’s ally Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. The year 2020 saw the largest anti-government demonstrations Belarus has ever seen, as its people overcame their fears in large numbers to voice their dissatisfaction with the despot. He sought his sixth presidential term in office in elections widely considered to have been rigged and was declared the winner despite widespread support for his main opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya#, and growing outrage over his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which he denied posed a threat. As the prospect of a full-scale revolution that would topple him grew stronger, violence from security forces increased, along with reports of human rights violations against detained activists.
With Mara, screening at the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival this October, Belarusian filmmaker Sasha Kulak considers how to create a tribute to the courage and spirit of those who rose up against the injustices of the state when revolution has, as yet, not removed the tyrant, and those carrying out his repression for him have still not been held accountable for persecuting their own people. A unique blend of documentary footage from the scene of the protests and elements of performance art that muse on the capacity of the imagination as a catalyst for change and freedom, the film not only bears witness to the events, to commit them to collective memory but also serves as a reminder of the now-living dream for liberation that took root in the minds and hearts of the Belarusian citizenry.
The word «mara» means «hope» or «dream» in the Belarusian language. And in Slavic culture, Mara is a female spirit who appears to people during sleep, bringing dreams or nightmares. The twin nature of the protests — with their tangible vision of freedom yet hellish reprisals; their possibility and trauma — is captured by Kulak’s atmospheric, immediate work in a way that does not underplay the power of bravery or fear. Change must first be dreamed of in order to occur, even as tyrants just as intently dream of evil, we are led to understand, in a film that grants a lot of space to the imagination and free expression as the catalysts necessary for alternate realities to be manifested. The director evokes a mythical, fairytale quality through performance sequences. In a mask that alternates between red and white (the colours of the pro-democracy opposition, taken from the ’90s flag of independent Belarus), she weaves through the protests and talks to children in a playground while sirens blare in the distance. This keeper of dreams, it is intimated, has an archetypal significance throughout human history. This fantastical layer is not merely escapist, as the documentary components do not shy away from exactly what is at stake in Belarus, and the abuse many demonstrators endured.
Powerful footage shows protesters facing off against riot police with shields, their identities masked behind helmets. The marchers we see are predominantly women — an irony not lost on us, as we consider that Lukashenko declared the nation not ready for a female president. Rather than anger, they hold white flowers and appeal to the humanity and «kind eyes» of the police as they endeavour to persuade them to shift their loyalties and go over to the side of the people; to think about who they are protecting while their relatives and friends face them. «We can’t possibly hate them. They are our children», says one woman of the line of dark-clad figures, adhering to a prevalent view that the «whole nation is dying for the sake of one fool.» As the violence escalates, and security forces in balaclavas are shown grabbing citizens from the street, shoving them into vans, the mood darkens. In voice-over, Kulak speaks of the fear of going outside and the trauma that grips the collective body. On a stage, with the costumed «Red Queen» summoned at her side, a young woman gives her eye-witness account of the beating and interrogation she endured while detained when rights meant nothing and her only thought was how to survive. A kind of force of protection for justice, and a guide collecting testimonies, the Red Queen seems, in the end, to be a witness to ensure the longevity of a certain dream of a renewed Belarus amid these nightmares. As we hear, while Belarusian citizens are all hostages of the regime now, «a better future has already happened within» them.