When Alexander Lukashenko rigged the Belarusian presidential election last summer, he expected to get away with it unscathed like so many times before.
Yet what followed, was the biggest rebellion in the history of the eastern European despot’s regime.
A new documentary, Courage, tells the story of some of what happened.
Director Aliaksei Paluyan follows three members of the underground Free Belarus Theatre, Denis Tarasenka, Maryna Yakubovich and Pavel Haradnizky.
We meet them just as campaigning has begun in the presidential election in the summer of 2020.
Opposition forces are hoping liberal challenger Svetlana Tychanovskaya will unseat former Stalinist bureaucrat Lukashenko.
The documentary shows snapshots of daily life under the regime and the choices people have to make to resist its banal, bureaucratic control.
The directors of the Free Theatre, Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, were forced into exile almost a decade before the Belarusian revolt of 2020.
But activists sometimes manage to find ways to subvert the official censor. While the Free Theatre rehearses its Dogs of Europe play, Nicolai joins the rehearsals via Skype in London.
Here he continues to receive death threats from the regime.
Paluyan’s Courage has no narrator, leaving Denis, Maryna and Pavel to tell the story through their conversations and a few asides to the camera. There is something very powerful about this style.
But it means the pace at the beginning is—terribly—slow and assumes a lot of knowledge about the Belarusian revolt.
This begins to change as results from polling stations start coming in.
Crowds begin to fill the streets in response to reports of Tychanovskaya doing well, but are swiftly beaten up by the Omon riot police.
These dramatic scenes, which many Socialist Worker readers will have read or heard about, are captured by Paluyan.
As police violence escalates, Maryna and her partner debate what’s better for their baby son.
The potential loss of his parents—or having the burden of fighting against the regime placed on a new generation?
But, rather than deterring protesters, the police violence politicises tens of thousands of people who hadn’t come out onto the streets before.
Some of the most powerful sections of the documentary show queues of people—including many women who would be at the forefront of the revolt—outside police stations.
They shout at the cops and demand to know what’s become of their relatives. Here we see first hand anger replacing fear.
In the days that followed, thousands of workers joined mass meetings and stoppages at dozens of workplaces in Minsk and in other towns and cities.
The workers’ revolt was one of the things that made the Belarusian revolt so exciting—and was a glimpse of the power that could have forced out Lukashenko.
Courage, perhaps understandably for what it is, glides over the strikes.
And, you’ll struggle to find a definitive political narrative of any sort in Paluyan’s documentary.
Nevertheless, Courage does help show how rapidly in revolts ordinary people can be thrust onto a political stage normally reserved for their “betters”.