Our latest Guardian Documentary is an unusual collaboration. Three independent Belarusian film-makers reacted to the country-wide protests by turning their cameras on themselves and their communities. Taken together, these three portraits offer a rare glimpse into life in a country in the throes of political upheaval.
Belarus has only ever had one president, and Alexander Lukashenko, who has held the position since 1994, declared victory again in elections on 9 August with a contested 80% of the vote. The widespread protests that followed have been ruthlessly suppressed by security forces.
Filmed in the first 10 days after the disputed election, we see both pain and hope in the story of a film-maker, a psychologist and a broadcast journalist forced to retire.
Here we talk to the three film-makers about making the documentary:
How do you see your role as a film-maker at a time like this?
Maksim Shved: I would call the situation in my country a time of breakthrough transformations or even revolution. It’s an interesting, albeit cruel moment, which as a film-maker I felt compelled to capture.
Ekaterina Markavets: When I was waiting for my fellow film-maker, director Maksim Shved, to come out of prison after being arrested filming the protests, I met a psychologist there who came to the prison to offer people psychological help. It was 2am and there were many other volunteers there on the street near the prison. It really impressed me how people rallied around a common grief. Later I found out that Belarusian psychologists had united and opened a hotline to help people to receive psychological help for free. So I decided to make a film about empathy because when we empathise with each other, it becomes easier for us to overcome these difficult moments. I was also very interested to know how psychologists themselves feel, how do they cope with all the dramatic stories they hear during the day.
Andrei Kutsila: I wasn’t planning to shoot a film about the events during the elections in Belarus – I don’t like political topics in films – but the violence by the authorities against civilians forced me to pick up my camera. And more personally, my sister and her husband were driving along in Minsk on 11 August when the car was suddenly shot at and rammed. They were detained and spent several days in a prison with about 11,000 other peaceful people. What else could I do but pick up my camera?
Maksim, we see in your film (part 1) that you were arrested and held in prison. What was that experience like?
MS: In the five days I was in prison it was an informational vacuum and I could not have imagined what I’d see when I got out. Hundreds of happy people welcomed our car with national flags. It was unbelievable. I was shocked and presumed the protesters had won, that the dictatorship was broken. However, I came to realise that it’s not that easy and Lukashenko is not going to renounce his power. Now after seven weeks of confrontation, the emotional rollercoaster for most people has ended. We understand that changes will not be quick, but that we need to preserve our energy for local everyday activities and the big Sunday marches. There is still a lot of energising creativity and solidarity.
Andrei, in your film (part 3) we meet Ksenia Baharava, a grandmother and broadcast journalist who worked for state TV for nearly 40 years. We meet her in hospital, where she is recovering from significant injuries sustained at a protest. And yet she seems hopeful for the future?
AK: Most people’s mood is going up and down, like mine. But more and more people understand that it is impossible to live with this president. His contract with society is broken, and yet he is still holding on to power. Violence has become his only tool. We all try to believe in the best and our hopes are heightened when more countries do not recognise Lukashenko as a legitimate president.
Ekaterina, in your film (part 2) we see the results of this climate of fear and trauma through these conversations with psychologist Alexei Zarybov.
EK: The heroes of my film reflect the general mood of Belarusians: we all seem to be standing above a thundercloud. Everyone has paranoia and many people have an irresistible desire to leave the country because our rights are violated as if they do not exist at all. I feel that Belarusians have become fearless because we understand that if we remain silent they will simply grind us to dust. The only thing that we have and that helps us survive now is an empathy for each other.
People almost immediately agreed to let me film their therapy sessions. And it was important for me to show different stories: to film the mother of the beaten man as well as the man who was beaten; and the mother of two children who despite not being physically affected by the protests was preparing herself for emigration, which puts her in a moral dilemma but she feels unable to continue to live in Belarus.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
EK: It seems to me that the Belarusian authorities are trying to do everything to intimidate people. I hope that everything will change, the power will change, and people will be able to heal their traumas, survive all this stress … and once again visit a psychologist to talk about the usual trials and tribulations of life, like falling in love or getting angry with their boss. I hope that soon we can get back to normal life.
MS: I’ve shared my story to ask questions that I’m also putting to myself right now and to show there are no simple answers. I’m pleased that people in the world can hear a more inspiring story about Belarus than just it’s “the last dictatorship in Europe”.
More about the film-makers:
Maksim Shved was born in 1979 in Minsk, Belarus. After graduating from Law Department of the Belarusian State University he decided to study directing. He graduated from St Petersburg high school of directors and dcreenwriters in 2013 and Wajda school (documentary programme) in 2016. Now he directs documentary series for television.
Ekaterina Markavets was born in 1986 in Minsk, Belarus. She studied at Audio-Visual Journalism at the Belarusian State University. She began her career in documentary film with television journalism and has participated in many international workshops on documentary film directing.
Andrei Kutsila was born in Baranovichi, Belarus in 1983. In 2007 he earned his degree in international journalism from the Belarusian State University and two years later he graduated from the Belarusian Academy of Fine Arts in Minsk. Since then he has collaborated with various producers and TV stations as a freelance filmmaker and participated in many international education programmes (including IDFAcademy and Berlinale Talents). In 2018 he won the IDFA award in the best medium-length documentary film category for Summa.
You can read more of the Guardian’s coverage of Belaurs here.
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