The stymied popular uprising in Belarus that began in August 2020 is yet to completely play out, but it’s important to have Aliaksei Paluyan’s polished on-the-ground documentary now as a record of what happened last summer. “Courage” follows three members of the underground Belarus Free Theater as they participate in the resistance to Alexander Lukashenko’s 26 years of dictatorship, at first through dissident performances and then on the streets when protesters amassed, demanding the end of the regime. Given ongoing developments, it’s no surprise the film concludes abruptly, and knowing that there’s been no power change in the country so far adds an inherent level of bleakness, yet Paluyan captures the hopes of a population that spans across gender and generations, and there will always be something uplifting about watching people fight peacefully for freedom.
In view of the political uncertainty, buyers and distributors will need to jump quickly to ensure “Courage” doesn’t feel like old news, especially given the geopolitical reality that until the demonstrations in August, Belarus wasn’t very much on the general global radar. The unadorned truth is that in a world where empathy fatigue is rising, marketing teams must swiftly leverage media attention to position admirable documentaries like this before the public eye. Its premiere as a Berlinale Special will hopefully be just the start.
The Belarus Free Theater was founded in 2005 and was soon targeted by the state for perceived subversive activities. Though the troupe has remained active, with regular free performances given at secret locations, its directors — Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada — were forced into exile in London nearly a decade ago (and as recently as December were receiving death threats from the Belarus government). Khalezin continues to direct plays for the company via Skype — its “Dogs of Europe” piece is seen at the film’s start — but members are frequently harassed and blacklisted. Denis Tarasenka, for example, earns his living as an auto body repair technician because he can’t get acting work apart from the Free Theater.
“Courage” begins with glimpses into the daily lives of the three protagonists — Denis, Maryna Yakubovich and Pavel Haradnizky — in the days around the August election that showed Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya winning the presidency until Lukashenko rigged the numbers. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, people in light summer clothing filter into the main Stalinist square in the capital, Minsk, to celebrate their candidate’s success. Then swarms of black-clad riot police (the OMON) in the distance begin to repel the crowds, and the steal becomes clear. From then on, there’s an atmosphere of tension as Paluyan and his cinematographers document the fraught hours and days that follow.
Footage of people anxiously awaiting news of loved ones inside the notorious Okrestina prison turns into displays of overwhelming relief when small groups begin to emerge and embrace those outside, yet knowledge that more are still being held within adds multiple layers of apprehension. New mom Maryna wasn’t among those arrested, but she discusses with her husband what they should do: Is it better for a child to risk losing one parent, or should they compromise their ideals? Do they stay and fight, or accept exile in a free country?
There’s a classic scene, enacted the world over whenever a populace begs the army to join it, of a soldier accepting some flowers that he puts on his riot shield. The crowd goes wild, expressing love for this young man who looks barely 20. While it’s a beautiful, emotional moment, for those familiar with similar encounters elsewhere it’s bittersweet to recall all the lives crushed in the aftermath of just such protests (as the song goes, where have all the flowers gone?). As the film ends, we hear Khalezin reassuring Pavel that if things get really bad, they have ways of getting him across the border. That’s good news indeed, but we also know that most people don’t have that safety net.
Crisp, well-framed visuals impressively capture the demonstrations as well as the activists’ regular lives, helping to wipe away outdated ideas of Belarus as a nation somehow trapped in Soviet amber. Although the events shown took place late last summer, and Paluyan must have scores of hours of footage, the assemblage doesn’t feel like a rush job. While “Courage” ends brusquely, we know that’s because the struggle continues.