When Flowers Are Not Silent (dir. Andrei Kutsila, 2021). Image courtesy Andrei Kutsila
Belarus can sometimes seem like the forgotten third actor in Russia’s war on Ukraine. In response to the challenge to his regime posed by the mass protest movement of 2020, president Aliaksandr Lukashenka has pursued ever closer ties with Vladimir Putin. Belarus now houses Russian troops and missile systems, as well as thousands of Wagner Group fighters and their “exiled” leader Evgeny Prigozhin following his abortive coup attempt last month. Domestic repression has also reached brutal new heights since the protests, including strict censorship over media and thousands imprisoned on political charges, with regular reports of torture and other abuses of power emerging from the country’s jails. Despite this, the country is poorly understood by most outside observers, its politics bundled together with that of Russia – an elision that Lukashenka himself is keen to enforce.
The same is true of Belarusian cinema. Since 2020, most of the country’s independent filmmakers have been forced to emigrate. Where previously a delicate balance could theoretically be struck between creative freedom and cautious interaction with state institutions – most notably Minsk’s prestigious Listapad Film Festival – there is now no room for negotiation. In light of their mass exile and their homeland’s involvement in Russian aggression in Ukraine, a group of Belarusian film professionals established the Belarusian Independent Film Academy in March 2022, hoping to establish a new ecosystem of mutual support and principled opposition for Belarusian artists – and ultimately, to integrate Belarusian film against Lukashenko’s wishes into the European community.
Andrei Kutsila was one of the founding members of the Academy. An established independent documentary filmmaker interested in the interaction between political, social, and domestic conflicts; his films include Summa (2018), which won the IDFA Award at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, and When Flowers Are Not Silent, winner of the Best Documentary Award at the Warsaw Film Festival in 2021. Kutsila left Belarus in 2021 and has since been living and working in Poland. We spoke to Kutsila in order to try to unravel the complicated recent history and unclear future of Belarusian film. Below he speaks about life as an independent filmmaker in Belarus before and after 2020, working in enforced emigration, and his hopes for the Academy going forward.
Apart from one short, you’ve never made a film with funding from the Belarusian state. Could you describe the difficulties and the possibilities of independent filmmaking in the years up to the protests of 2020? Presumably, as a documentary filmmaker, certain things were easier for you than for your colleagues in fiction, especially concerning budgets and equipment?
Of course, it was easier for documentary makers to source money for their projects from outside of Belarus. More accurately, it was difficult, but less difficult than for fiction filmmakers. After all, at the end of the day a documentarian can always pick up their camera and shoot things themselves. But filming over several years, not to mention editing, does cost a good deal of money. Up until 2020, you could work at the Belarusfilm studio and receive money from the Ministry of Culture to shoot – as long as your work didn’t engage with politics in any way or pose difficult social questions. That’s how documentarians managed to make quite a few films – mostly shorts – that had success at festivals. Until subject matter started being imposed from above, in a literal sense: the Ministry of Culture would publish a list of topics that they were willing to finance. What’s more, I know that my colleagues at Belarusfilm would come up with lists of potential protagonists, and then the Ministry would rule on whether they were suitable subjects for documentaries or not. I didn’t play those games; I kept my distance from the state system.
When the satellite TV channel Belsat was launched in Poland, which was targeted exclusively at a Belarusian audience and broadcast exclusively in Belarusian, documentary makers got the chance to work on their own material, on tiny budgets but without censorship. The channel was declared an extremist organisation in Belarus in 2021. The people involved in setting up and running the channel were declared “extremists” and threatened with up to ten years in jail. Some of our colleagues, who either didn’t want to leave Belarus or didn’t manage to get out in time, have already been sentenced to prison.
Before, some filmmakers took money from the state and tried to make films that didn’t trouble their conscience. Today that’s practically impossible.
How did censorship make itself felt for independent filmmakers in those years? Was it a question of trouble finding distribution, or more direct threats of violence and incarceration?
In the first instance, it was related to the shoots themselves. In some places it was difficult to shoot without accreditation and official permission, which were practically impossible for independent filmmakers to acquire. And it was taken as read that if you were filming a protest, you could get arrested as a protester yourself. It was also impossible to screen politically critical films in theatres, although sometimes they got shown in art spaces. What’s more, many independent films were allowed to compete at Listapad, even though it was an “official” festival – for the past ten years, it’s been run by a professional team that cares about the development of national cinema. However, in 2018 the Ministry of Culture demanded that several films be removed from the festival programme, including my film Strip and War, which told the story of a retired soldier and his stripper grandson. Their relationship unwittingly brought to mind the whole of post-Soviet Belarus; apparently, even this was considered dangerous. Likewise, Aleksander Mihalkovich’s My Grandma from Mars, a tragicomedy about life in contemporary occupied Crimea, was also removed from the programme. A scandal broke out. A number of directors withdrew their films from the festival in protest, and the FIPRESCI jury released a statement condemning the censorship. It worked: after a year, the films were reinstated and shown at the festival. It seemed like good sense was beginning to win out…
Then the 2020 protests and their brutal repression happened. Personally, I didn’t harbour any illusions that the regime would change. After all, opponents of Lukashenko were disappearing as early as the late nineties. The famous documentarian Yuri Khashchevatsky was beaten unconscious in response to his film An Ordinary President, which presented an openly satirical portrait of the president. It should be noted that the only reason that filmmakers weren’t repressed more often is that the system quickly realised that cinema couldn’t influence the masses to the same extent as the mainstream media. The engine of repression turned to the control and gradual destruction of the independent media, but it didn’t forget about cinema. For example, even a state-funded film produced at the state studio, like Uladzimir Yankouski’s Kupala (2019), was pulled from release for political reasons. Apparently, the story of Belarus’s own national poet, Yanka Kupala, was considered dangerous – or as dangerous as any “national” material that promoted the idea of independence and the struggle against the aggressive influence of Russia’s imperial culture.
Strip and War (dir. Andrei Kutsila, 2018). Image courtesy Andrei Kutsila
This is obviously a very broad question, but how would you describe the effect of the 2020 protests and the repression that followed on Belarusian filmmaking? Did they draw out tensions and conflicts that had previously been more contained? I have to presume that those events created strong divisions where previously there were ambiguous relationships.
Yes, 2020 represented a red line. Every day now several people are arrested, political prisoners are abused in jail. For instance, the artist Ales Pushkin, who was sentenced to five years in prison, and died in custody this July. Before, some filmmakers were able to strike a balance. They took money from the state and tried to make films that didn’t trouble their conscience. Today that’s practically impossible. The country’s main theatre has collapsed, and its actors – who also appeared in films – have been blacklisted for protesting and left the country. Most of my colleagues have been forced to leave Belarus and now live in Poland, Germany, Estonia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, the US… This is a crisis for artists whose work deals with issues of the country they’ve left behind, Belarus. But it’s no less of a crisis to stay in your homeland and live in fear every day, unable to work.
You’ve described Listapad in the years before 2020 as an “island of freedom” for filmmakers within Belarus. How would you describe its function within that community in those years? Were there other institutions – production companies, festivals, community spaces – that sustained Belarusian filmmaking?
Yes, but this was conditional freedom. From 2014 onwards, Listapad ran a national competition, which programmed independent films. This gave Belarusian filmmakers the opportunity to meet, to get to know one another, to discuss their complaints. But of course, none of this solved the issues of the film industry, financing, censorship. How can a festival solve political problems that are directly linked to problems with the industry as a whole? And yes, there were other initiatives that supported Belarusian cinema, like the non-state-run Northern Lights Film Festival, Watch Docs Belarus, and more.
We should understand that the issue of war in Ukraine will not be resolved without at the same time resolving the issue of Belarus. The region will not be secure otherwise.
Exile is of course a traumatic experience. But from interviews with you it seems that it also represented a kind of emancipation in that it allowed you and your colleagues to think and act in solidarity and community in new and important ways that weren’t possible inside Belarus. How has existing outside your home country changed your understanding of yourself as a Belarusian filmmaker?
Yes, the great majority of directors have left the country. We feel free, we act in solidarity, and we speak openly – but at the same time this is an enormous professional crisis. Almost all of our subject matter remains in Belarus, and we have no way of filming within the country. This is a bitter blow for documentarians. I don’t know how many of us are glad to have to keep working in enforced exile.
Could you briefly describe how and why the Belarusian Independent Film Academy was formed last year? How has that project evolved in the year since?
We always felt that unity was essential, even before the 2020 protests. But in those conditions, we weren’t able to declare our principles and positions openly and freely. And experience demonstrated that in recent years, the government had liquidated any such organisations and often sent their members to prison. To have spoken openly at the time would have simply oiled the cogs of the repressive machine. As for the idea of creating the Belarusian Independent Film Academy… The idea of creating an organisation was born after the beginning of the war in Ukraine in 2022. More than 130 Belarusian filmmakers signed a collective statement on 1st March, condemning Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine. Since then, we all continued to face challenges individually and felt that we should unite in solidarity to form a unified front. All this prompted us to create a legal structure that could speak on behalf of independent Belarusian filmmakers with one voice. Our principled position is to refuse cooperation with any Belarusian state structures, while supporting filmmakers who continue working in Belarus as well as those filmmakers who are working in exile.
We’re glad to be supported by the European Film Academy. We try to take part in a variety of initiatives at different levels. For instance, while independent Belarusian media receive foreign financial backing, the same is not true when it comes to cinema. That’s why we took part in developing a programme of reforms to support the art and culture of Belarus, a so-called “road map” that was presented to the European Commission. We want support for Belarusian film to be recognised as a specific task within this project, and we have offered our vision for how to implement this. We’ll see what comes of it. And of course, we’re getting ready to present BIFA’s interests at industry events at festivals this autumn.
When Flowers Are Not Silent (dir. Andrei Kutsila, 2021). Image courtesy Andrei Kutsila
One of the aims of BIFA is to integrate Belarusian film into the European market, funding networks, and so on. Do you think there are any dangers associated with that, as a film community fighting for recognition and independence? Alternatively, what is it about Belarusian filmmaking specifically that can really help Europe to understand the new world that is being created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and our rethinking of the cinema of the region?
When it comes to the question of “independence”, let’s put it this way. All non-mainstream and non-commercial cinema receives backing from a number of different institutions, those that finance art and culture. That doesn’t mean you fear losing your independence. Right now, we are living through our own national tragedy – it’s just that relative to the catastrophe in Ukraine and the horrifying details of war crimes there, the wider world isn’t paying much attention to what is happening in Belarus, especially since information is tightly controlled within our country. Apart from the arrests and the torture, everything “national” – everything that supports [Belarusian] identity, and therefore strives for independence from Russia and the “Russian world” – is being methodically destroyed. All this demands a change of mentality, and cinema can be part of that. We should understand that the issue of war in Ukraine will not be resolved without at the same time resolving the issue of Belarus. The region will not be secure otherwise.
For more information on the Belarusian Independent Film Academy, visit their site here.