Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Courage: The Belarus Free Theatre On-Stage and in Protests

In the West, we have comedians that want to censor jokes and journalists that want to censor the internet if it reports the wrong kind of stories. However, the Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) still believes in freedom of speech and expression—and they practice what they preach, despite the dangers they run under Alexander Lukashenko’s crude dictatorship. The BFT have been the subject of previous documentaries, including Madeleine Sackler’s Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus, but it is a fellow countryman Aliaksei Paluyan who turns his lens on the free-thinking company in Courage, which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Maryna Yakubovich, Pavel Haradnizky, and Denis Tarasenka are talented performers, but like most of the BFT they are under-employed, because they have been blacklisted. 2010 was a bad year for the troupe and the company, but the lead up to the 2020 sham elections is shaping up to be even worse. Sackler’s doc largely concentrated on their rebellious stage performances, but Paluyan focuses more on their participation in the massive popular street protests. Yet, they had to coordinate their street demonstrating, so there would always be sufficient members to arrange lawyers and prison care packages for colleagues should they be arrested.

Frankly, the film’s slow start does not reflect the urgency of the Belarussian situation, but once Paluyan immerses us in the protests, we get a visceral sense of the strange combination of fear, violence, and hope that marked last summer for fed-up Belarussians. Sometimes,
Courage captures sprawling chaos not unlike that depicted in Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, but there are also acutely personal moments, like the look in the eyes of young OMON secret police shock troops, who obviously want to be anywhere else but there.

Unfortunately, Paluyan’s film also makes it clear Belarussian activists need a refresher in Dr. Gene Sharp’s principles for revolutionaries, particularly when it comes to putting women and senior citizens at the front of demonstrations and having signs in English for the international press to read. Regardless, nobody can fault the average Belarussian protesters for the commitment and yes, their courage.

Although Paluyan incorporates far less of the BFT in performance, he closes with an excerpt of a production that really packs an emotional wallop. Lukashenko’s tyranny is obviously indefensible, but it also effects the rest of the world, especially anyone flying over Belarus’s airspace. When Lukashenko forced down a European airliner to arrest a dissident, it was a flagrant and provocative violation of international law. Twenty years ago, it would have justly generated round-the-clock cable news outrage, but in 2021, the media didn’t care, because it didn’t involve Donald Trump’s tax returns. Remember that next time you book a flight over Belarus.

Also, remember the BFT and all the Belarussians who took to the streets for democracy and a better way of life. Paluyan captures their bravery (literally under fire) and gives several human faces to the mass movement. Highly recommended,
Courage opens this Friday (11/12) in LA, at the Laemmle Glendale.