Belarus 4D: Our screens in four dimensions
Many people look at Belarus as a “Soviet sanctuary”. Whether it is true or not for the country as such, one has to admit that there is something special about the local cinematography. It definitely lacks fresh ideas or knowledge of the current trends on the world filmmaking scene. At the same time, Belarusian filmmakers understand that it is high time to say goodbye to the Soviet past and find an indigenous cinema style. As a result, those few recent locally produced feature films are in a way introducing a viewer into a new concept of Belarusianness, as seen by the people involved in film production.
So, what are the dimensions of this Belarusianness?
Dimension One: Consent/Self-sacrifice
Belarusian cinematography lacks financing and suffers from brain drain. Many filmmakers do not attempt being more creative than the authors of the 1980s Soviet films are. However, this is not the only reason why the industry is so old-fashioned. What actually makes it look outdated is that cinematographic expression is still commonly understood as an act of civic courage, a public statement by a director who is seen as an “engineer of the human soul”. Add to this the deficit of private film studios and the quasi-Soviet system of the state order for the “right” cinema and you will get a clear message: a film producer should work as a public servant on subsidies from the state. In the context of the Belarusian state-controlled “dream factory”, it means maintaining the national unity around the incumbent political power.
All the films within this paradigm, such as Shchit otechestva (Fatherland’s Shield, 2008), Rodina ili smert (Motherland or Death, 2008), Dneprovski rubezh (Dnepr Frontier, 2010), Brestskaya krepost (Brest Fortress, 2011), The Code of Cain (2015), share one common pattern. They portray patriotism as unanimous consent with the state system. In the best Soviet traditions, Belarusian cinematography promotes unity and solidarity, and joyfully calls to obey orders and hold the line. It is not accidental that the main characters in those movies are soldiers, public servants and so-called “honest citizens”. There is no room for doubt or self-reflection. You do something because you have to. As a result, self-sacrifice becomes the seamy side of unity. A loyal soldier is always ready to die on the frontline (like the characters in Dnepr Frontier and Brest Fortress).
It is quite revealing that the authors of these patriotic propaganda pieces openly appeal to the old-time Soviet mythology of so-called Great Patriotic War, a typical imperial epic about the courageous nation and its intelligent leaders. The new cinematography of unity and solidarity turns out to be an old fairytale about the Master.
Remarkably, the attempts to construct an alternative mythology based on Belarusian unity follows the same patterns. The joint Poland-Belarus production Zyvie Belarus! (Long Live Belarus! 2012) tells viewers about the mass resistance and nationwide suffering under the “bloody regime”. It proposes to unite around yet another leader and savior – this time a dissident blogger with an electric guitar.
Dimension Two: Guerillas (partisans)
Along with the national accord, there is a vector of disagreement and struggle on the map of the Belarusian contemporary cinema. It is more complex than the trivial “war” plot, since it provides a deeper existential dimension of conflicts. Guerilla warfare (being “partisans”) as a worldview model combines hypermobility, a paranoid lack of confidence in others, and an ability to embezzle under the guise of trophies collection. It also replaces strategy as a long-term planning tool with tactic based on improvised games with explosives. In this sense, the current political regime is a guerilla movement, and the pro-regime cinematography reflects that.
In today’s Belarusian films, guerilla movement is present in two manifestations: pro-governmental and “dissident”. The first one is embodied in stories about the “invisible front” the guerillas are fighting, about subversive actions and provocations, the exposure of hidden enemies (Motherland or Death, Fatherland’s Shield). War is a must here as a strong signal and a propaganda method, a familiar code of communication with viewers of the “partisan (guerilla) republic” (the nickname of Belarus in the Soviet mythology).
The second manifestation of guerilla movement is a particular mix of Partisanfilm (the nickname of the state-run Belarusfilm company known mostly for films about Soviet guerilla fighters during WWII) with the post-Soviet attempts of national self-identification. This dimension is the most pronounced in the films by director Andrei Kudzinenka.
His Mysterium Occupation (2003) showed for the first time the Belarusian guerilla movement as a conflicting existence under crossfire in-between two occupational regimes – western and eastern. In Massacre (2010), a retro horror story about the times of Kalinowski uprising, it is hard not to notice the diagnosis of the contemporary Belarusian soul.
Profit-oriented indie-director Andrei Kureichyk acts as a guerilla, too, in his Party-zan film (2016), trying to make an independent (from the state budget) light cinema through the collected “trophies”, which are the templates and stereotypes borrowed from the Russian commercial film industry.
Struggle remains a serious component in this picture of the world. However, it has little chances for success in the both versions of the guerilla movement.
Dimension Three: indigenousness
The “Mainland” of the Soviet Union (translator’s note – an allusion to the Soviet territory not occupied by the Nazis during WWII from where the guerilla movement was coordinated) was irrecoverably lost after the declaration of independence. The general plot of the national destiny has failed to take shape. What is left? “Indigenousness”, a sentimental reference to the hometown or home village and their simple joys, is our last frontier.
The first feature of indigenousness is the resuscitation of “small genres”: a countryside comedy (On the Back of a Black Cat, 2010), a chamber melodrama (Cadet, 2010, Dunyechka, 2005), or a television spectacle (Indigenous, 2008). Belarusianness without high aspirations builds a horizontal landscape of everyday routine. The recognition effect, which is quite significant for cheap production “for those who understand”, is achieved here through simple codes and almost a TV series-like dramaturgy. This is a special happiness experienced by residents of collective farms living on the outskirts of fate.
The second feature of indigenousness is the focus on the past. Anastasia Slutskaya (2003) is a heroic legend that came from the troublous times of struggle “for the native land, for the Orthodox faith”.
On the Back of a Black Cat is a remix of Soviet comedies such as White Sun of the Desert and Hollywood flicks about bold aging machos. Cadet is a post-war village detective film with a lyrical touch. Dunyechka is a story about the notional 1970s. Tuteyshyia (Indigenous) is a screen adaptation of Yanka Kupala’s classical play.
Finally, “indigenousness” exists as the interpretation of the same-name Kupala’s piece: as cultural conformism, an ability to make a deal with anyone in power. “Indigenous” cinema offers soft Belarusianness, as the first floor of national consciousness without a roof. Such a construction can host additional levels of any kind.
Dimension Four: schizo
The most remarkable films created in the last couple of years bear a clear taste of Belarusian craziness (“schizo”). Being a Belarusian is not a choice but one’s destiny. How otherwise can one operate in the field of aggressive information pressure from both the West and East, absorb simultaneously the imported Western values and provincial conformism, marrying French post-Modernism with the pop mainstream from Moscow and connecting Russian television with contemporary art? This is a mission for people strong in spirit or daredevils.
Goodbye, batka! (2006), Sluchay s patsanom (A Case with the Dude) (2001), Na spinye u chernogo kota On the Back of a Black Cat, Dastisch fantastisch (2010), Hard Reboot (2013), GaraSH (2015), Chronotop (2015-2016)… It is hardly possible to take them seriously. It would be ridiculous to rate those films high. However, compared to the pretentious rhetoric of the “cinematography of unity and solidarity”, they definitely win due to their openly trashy style. Their honesty borderlines psychic disorder.
There are three types of this “disorder”. The first is the most conceptual and politicized one; and it was written off into archives long time ago. The underground grouping Navinki (Goodbye, Batka, Sluchay s patsanom, Aleksandria Shklovskaya (2004), a re-edited and re-scored version of the state-sponsored Anastasia Slutskaya) in the early 2000s quite successfully used visual provocations to ridicule the two opposites of the political divide. Improvised cinematographic collages and squibs filmed by anarchist amateurs with ridiculous money made the local “schizo” as a natural source of inspiration for extra-systemic intellectuals.
The second type is a countryside eccentricity masked under artistic pretension. In The Black Cat, pensioners dance with striptease workers and chat with dead people and angels. This is a wild mixture of the styles of film directors Gaiday and Tarkovsky, a mystic post-alcohol trip from a native village back to the same native village through the National Library in Minsk. This version of “disorder” also includes the stories about naïve Bulbashism (it can be literally translated as Potato-ism; bulba is potato in Belarusian while bulbash is a potato-eater, a nickname of Belarusians in the former Soviet Union): TV films Paulinka new (2008) and Kondrat Krapiva’s Fables (2009) by Alexandra Butor.
The third kind of Belarusian schizo resembles a disco for hip-hop and marijuana fans. Alexander Kananovich’s Dastisch Fantastisch (2010) is a system of references and surprise matches. It is about countryside but almost like Emir Kusturica’s countryside. Minsk is portrayed as a city painted in psychedelic colors where foreign currency banknotes grow on trees and a transvestite runs a prison. Kureychik’s Party-zan film (2016) looks similar but has a different focus: all-out banter that transforms into national pride. The main characters are young crooks who decide to make a film “about war”, expertly con money from naïve Moskali (Muscovites), drink non-stop Siabry vodka and flush US dollar stacks in a Minsk-Brest train toilet.
Such cinematography is acceptable at the level of folk art creativity. But when non- affiliated with the regime directors try to raise the bar just a little bit higher, program failure is guaranteed. The depressive youth melodrama Graf v apelsinakh (A Duke in Oranges) (2016) by Vlada Senkova is overly lengthy, excessively pretentious and deprived of live energy. In Victor Krasovsky’s industrial drama Dushi Myortvyie (Souls Dead) (2016) the main character is…a filming technique: the one-hour-long film was shot by a mobile camera without cuts.
This is a new-generation cinematography: there is no more room for admiring the decorative peasantry. However, there is clearly a lack of resources (conceptual and stylistic in the first place) to overcome this peasantry.
PS Belarusian films: where to search and how to watch
Cinemas in Belarus mostly screen Russian and Hollywood films. Belarusian movies fly through the box-office with the lightning speed. They are treated as unprofitable right from the beginning.
There is no tradition of releasing films on DVD or Blu-Ray. Therefore, online channels alongside with film festivals and special screenings remain the main way to familiarize oneself with the latest Belarusian movies (for example, here).
Every year, Cinema Perpetuum Mobile, a grouping of cinematography activists collects various screen experiments into its international repertoire.
In late October every year, Minsk and Warsaw host the independent Belarusian film festival Bulbamovie. Its program covers a wide range of feature, documentary and animation films. The festival focuses on supporting young directors.
Over the past three years, also in late October, the official Belarusian film festival Listapad has organized a separate contest for Belarusian films. Due to festival’s officious status, the organizers are extremely cautious when they select contest entries. Radical creativity does not live here.
The prospects of 2016’s debuting festival KinoSmena (with an international contest) and Totoshka Festival (authored by film director Ivan Maslyukov) remain unclear.
In between the festivals, one can go to the Titan art-cinema where Svajo Kino stages regular screenings of young directors followed by discussions.