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'Courage': On the frontline of the Belarus protests

Torsten Landsberg | Scott Roxborough
June 11, 2021

Democracy activists Svetlana Alexievich and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya were in Berlin for the premiere of Aliaksei Paluyan's documentary on Belarus, "Courage."

A woman carried a red and white flag in front of police
'Courage' brings the frontline of the Belarus pro-democracy protest movement to the BerlinaleImage: Living Pictures Production

"Belarus is currently an experimental field for a new world view … a new perspective on history, which involves change without violence," said Belarusian investigative journalist and 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature laureate Svetlana Alexievich. She was speaking during a panel discussion on Friday ahead of the Berlin International Film Festival premiere of Courage, a documentary on the protests in Belarus.

Along with Alexievich, Courage director Aliaksei Paluyan was joined by political activist Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, considered by many to be the winner of the disputed Belarusian election of August 2020, to discuss the role of artists in their home country.

"Artists played a tremendous role in the protests," said Tsikhanouskaya, pointing out that music, art, photography and cinematography were often more powerful than political speeches during the presidential campaign — and during the protests that followed the contested elections.

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For Alexievich, artists also have "a very important responsibility," as they now need to revisit and dissect the painful events in Belarus. Their work "will allow to live the revolution once more," she said. 

That is exactly what Paluyan does with his film, Courage.

Resistance through the arts

Maryna, Pavel and Denis were among more than hundreds of thousands of people who marched in Belarus last summer to protest what they claimed was electoral fraud by president Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. The European Union no longer recognizes him as head of state. 

Typical of the rising resistance to the Belarus regime, the three worked in theaters in Minsk and are the subjects of Courage. 

Already 15 years earlier, Maryna, Pavel and Denis had left Minsk's State Theater to perform at the then newly founded underground theater group, the Belarus Free Theater.

The play that they were working on during the filming of Courage is about opposition members who suddenly disappear. This was not a fiction but reality in the former Soviet Union.

Europe's last dictatorship

Belarus is widely considered to be Europe's last dictatorship, a country where free speech is suppressed and activists, artists and journalists are intimidated, tortured, imprisoned or forced into exile. 

Since the protests, suppression has increased, with the autocratic regime infamously redirecting a passenger plane to Minsk to arrest an opposition blogger, Raman Pratasevich. But it was the tip of the iceberg, according to Aliaksei Paluyan.

armed men and thousands of people stand on either side of a barbed wire fence
Brutal repression has followed in the wake of the pro-democracy protests in Belarus that are documented in this still from 'Courage'Image: Living Pictures Production

Since shooting the film during the first wave of summer 2020 protests against the regime, the filmmaker says the repression has taken on "a more brutal character." 

The director describes people killed in custody whose mutilated bodies are handed over to their families. 

"Almost 30,000 people have been detained," he told DW, adding that many artists and activists have since fled into exile.

"My protagonists are no longer in Belarus," said Paluyan of the three main characters in his film.

In addition to the many artists in exile, Nobel Prize winner Alexievich and opposition politician Tsikhanouskaya  have also left their homeland under the pressure of repression against dissidents. Tsikhanouskaya's husband, activist Sergei Tikhanovsky, has been imprisoned since May 2020. 

"Write letters to the political prisoners in Belarus," was Tsikhanouskaya's plea at the press conference on Friday. "Each letter can give them the courage to keep going for an extra day or week." 

An opposition movement in exile

After Pavel and Denis were detained in prison for 15 days, they left Belarus for Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. Marina followed last week, partly due to fear of "more brutal repression" following the arrest of a journalist mid-flight. 

This is the price of wanting to "to be free," of having "this romantic idea to be an independent artist in such an authoritarian country like Belarus," said the director.

"If there are no independent artists left within Belarus it could be a big problem," he says. "Artists have a responsibility to society to give an answer about what's going on."

'I want to speak loudly'

"These are the consequences you have to bear," says Paluyan, who came to Germany in 2012 to study film and television directing at the Kassel Art Academy. He hasn't been back to Belarus since completing the filming for Courage in September 2020.

Fleeing into exile was the only way to continue his work, he says. He himself does not know why he was not arrested during the making of documentary.

Denis, one of his protagonists, decided to commit artistic "treason," withdrawing from the theater stage while in Belarus to protect his family.

A 30-ish man with a thin beard and white-collared shirt
Aliaksei Paluyan is continuing his work as a Belarus artist in exileImage: privat

"You can't be creative if you live in fear all the time," Paluyan explained.

The young filmmaker worries about the future of his home country: "It takes longer to grow together than to divide."

Nonetheless, he is convinced that it's only a matter of time before the democracy movement will prevail — even if carrying the emblematic white and red flag on the street now leads to immediate arrest. "If I lost hope I could not be an artist," he said.

Paluyan hopes for increased international political pressure, including through tougher sanctions. "The people of Belarus feel abandoned," he said. 

Courage is intended to help keep the public discussion going: "I want to speak loudly with this film."