Courage – an important documentary on Belarus (Berlinale review)

Courage – an important documentary on Belarus (Berlinale review)

Fifteen years ago, frustrated with the authoritarian regime’s lack of tolerance, Maryna, Pavel and Denis left the Minsk State Theatre to perform for the newly founded Belarus Free Theatre. Civil disobedience as a moral imperative. Rehearsals are held in secret and the director is connected via Skype from exile. Resources are scarce, and topics explosive. Just like the real lives caught between daily routine and underground activities, their current play is about opposition politicians who have “disappeared” and the loss of any means of existence. In other words – the truth. Anyone who dares to speak out risks repression, even death. Having made a conscious decision to “betray art” as he puts it, Denis has given up acting to protect his family. But, by now, even those who merely observe are putting everything at risk. Because to watch means to know.

Since the presidential elections of August 2020, hundreds of thousands of people are refusing to look away. They are protesting non-violently and “loudly in silence” for a peaceful transfer of power in Belarus. Courage takes a look at this maelstrom, placing these three protagonists at its center.

Most of us have heard the term ‘last dictatorship of Europe’. The term is frequently used for Belarus, whose first president, Lukashenko, became a dictator after his first election in 1994 and since then holds disputed elections that the international community follows, labeling them as rigged and fraudulent. This film is coming the time that Belarus takes an aeroplane down from air, to arrest a journalist that was supposedly organizing the uprising that we see on screen in the film. Hence the timing couldn’t be more striking for Lukashenko: Courage premieres for the audiences in Berlinale, the same week that the EU announces flying embargo for Belarusian planes.

The protagonists of the films and the people they interact, make it clear that they are genuinely afraid of their future and that of their families, because they are figures of resistance in a state that bullies, imprisons or even exterminates its opposition. “I would come to the demonstration, but this might mean a sabotage of the future of my children, I would fight in a civil war against Lukashenko, but nothing is changing now” says one of the friends of the protagonists. A little one of the other protagonists remembers the words of his parents: “We didn’t manage to change anything, now it’s up to your generation, otherwise your children will have the same” paraphrasing without realizing the slogan of the Spanish Civil War that Manic Street Preachers made a song in “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next”. The passion a democratic state and a change in the country, as well as art and theater is contradicted every other day with the fear of what will be. Whether the next day may find them in a prison or in exile.

Courage may be all about Belarus and the tragic state the country is nowadays, but its message is universal. It touches the subject of resistance at any cost and the devotion to a goal bigger than life, that ultimately makes life having a meaning: that of change and making things better and fairer. Hence it is a film worth noticing, both for the contemporary issues that and political problems it tackles, but also for its value of depicting the age-old question of compliance versus resistance, of sacrifice versus selfishness. Aliaksei Paluyan does also a great job in the building of the characters of Courage, that makes the film easier to follow from the eyes of those not familiar with the events taking place in Belarus.

Grade: 4/5

by Aliaksei Paluyan
with Maryna Yakubovich, Pavel Haradnizky, Denis Tarasenka
Country: Germany Year: 2021
Runtime: 90 minutes


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