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A False Freedom: Documentary Filmmakers Challenge 'Europe's Last Dictatorship'
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A False Freedom: Documentary Filmmakers Challenge 'Europe's Last Dictatorship'

Picture of Marcus Clark
Updated: 5 January 2017
Since 1994 Belarus has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko, in what is described as, ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’. This repressive regime has restricted freedom of expression and inflicts harsh penalties on dissidents. Marcus Clark explores the work of several filmmakers who have utilised their medium to speak out against the regime and document the suffering of the Belarusian people.

Alexander Lukashenko has been successively elected to the presidency of Belarus four times since the creation of the supposedly democratic republic in 1991. The most recent election in 2010 saw him win 80% of the vote with his closest rival, Adrei Sannikov receiving a fractional 3%. Lukashenko’s government maintains a repressive Soviet style regime which has been labelled one of the remaining ‘outposts of tyranny’. His governing party utilises terror, oppression, and fear in a system built upon farcical foundations. The country’s film industry is therefore almost non-existent with strict state control severely restricting creativity. Despite this, a number of politically active documentary filmmakers have managed to bring their damning critiques to the screen, and in the process depict striking revelations of a society under political duress.

Victor Dashuk is one such Belarusian native who has filmed an eye opening trio of documentaries. Taken together they reveal the ruthlessness of the Lukashenko regime and its psychological effects on the society it subjugates. It is the latter two of his rebellious trilogy: Long Knives Night (1999) and Reporting from the Rabbit Hutch (2002), that particularly resonate with the situation of the country.

Long Knives Night opens with a young Belarusian male remorselessly ripping a holy cross from the earth of a graveyard in the dead of night. His motivation becomes horrifyingly clear when a dog is lashed to the sacred image whilst a band of half-naked youths in demonic makeup perform a nightmarish pagan ritual. The perverse scene acts as an introduction to a wider allegory of the crisis of identity in Belarus. Is the act an affirmation that life has become diseased to the point it is based on nihilism? Or is it Dashuk’s own comment upon the willingness and passivity of Belarusian society to settle for its own dark lord? Reporting from the Rabbit Hutch is more singular in its motives. Made three years later, the documentary appears to be a response to the country’s awakening political consciousness. The film focuses on demonstrations and rallies in a country where any sort of protest carries heavy consequences. The second part of the documentary sees Dashuk conduct a dangerous investigation into the disappearance of those brave enough to speak out.

At times Dashuk’s reportage is agonisingly painful to watch, protesters are beaten bloody by police forces whilst others are dragged from the streets by a KGB style goon squad. The shaky handheld camera footage only adds to the authenticity of Dashuk’s work. There are no frills or tricks. Reporting from the Rabbit Hutch is a powerful journalistic endeavour. There is also no doubt that Dashuk puts himself at considerable risk through his bare bones modus operandi. The films themselves are not allowed to be shown or distributed in Belarus and the director has come under unsubtle state surveillance and harassment. Fellow activist Yury Khashchavatski made a similar critique towards the government in his 1996 documentary The Usual President. He subsequently had both of his legs broken by unidentified attackers.

Native Belarusian filmmakers are not the only ones attempting to bring the issue to a wider audience. Outside interest in documenting the hopeless state of Belarus has come in the form of Europe’s Last Dictator. Directed by Mathew Charles and Juan Luis Passarelli, the film premiered in London on March 1st 2012. The documentary is a thorough look at the vicious crackdown that followed the rigging of the 2010 presidential election. These film events are portrayed through the eyes of Eva Nyaklyaeu, the daughter of one of the opposing candidates, and Irina Bogdanova, the founder of Free Belarus Now and sister to Lukashenko’s closest rival Andrei Sannikov. Their campaign to free their family and other opposition members arrested after the election is a truly personal and inspiring journey.

The footage of the crackdown is both shocking and horrifying. Riot police crash their shields together in clattering unison to create an ominous cacophony of terror. The images are alarmingly similar to Dashuk’s offering in 2002 and spontaneous surges of violence caught on film indicate that little has changed.

Belarus is still under the unyielding power of Lukashenko. These films and their makers seek to highlight the plight of those without the means to do so. Whilst international pressure has been exerted upon the regime these glowing examples of undercover journalism aim to show that not enough is being done. They endeavour to provide documentation of the country’s living history and in doing so champion the rights of the oppressed and disenfranchised Belarusian people.