- Hooman Razavi
Viva Belarus! - Cinema's Call For Freedom
By: Hooman Razavi
As cultures and civilizations are known to be represented by icons and historical characters, in modern times, the global public could gain access to a snapshot of countries’ modern history through the medium of film. Among the new countries born out of the breakup of the Soviet Union, Belarus has a special place. The film (Viva Belarus), as its titles communicate, carriers that signifier, narrating the fate of this new country as exemplified through this story. Polish filmmaker Krzystof Lukaszewicz directed the film, and the screenplay is co-written by him and Belarusian journalist and opposition activist Frank Viacorka, in which the story is based on the event in his real life. This political drama takes viewers to the deepest layers and intricacies of Belarusian society and the actors who fought for their causes on different grounds.
Themes & Aesthetic
Viva Belarus engages both our eyes and mind in many ways. The opening scene that frames Lenin's status sets the tone and provides the guide on what is expected to transpire. The camera then invites us to the city of Minsk, set in 2009. The military decision tribunal scene is the earliest in the battle and contrast between two opposing sides and sets of characters in the film. One the one hand, we see young and energetic Mironand on the other side, the state mostly represented by the military personnel. The military scene is also significant because Miron is naked, whereas the military officials have the uniform. This dimension of how the body is affected in this battle is well-framed early on by the camera. The following scenes show how Mirongoes to the club he sings, meets Vera, the lover, the other main protagonists of the film, and why he gets arrested. Once again, from the outset, one can see the significant role that music plays as an instrument to please Belarusian souls but to unite in their cause and struggle. Vera’s character is then more revealed, and the audience gets to her about her background as a journalist and someone eager to expose the truth behind the façade in the country and the military. The club scene is also very significant as it introduces the other character Zmicirwho is Miron’s friend. The scene indicates that Zmicir is on the side of the opposition and is not afraid that the crowd chant freedom. His role is very subtle as not only he supports Vera emotionally when Miron is later jailed, but he seems to be the other singer archetype in which on the one hand, has Miron’s ideals in mind, and on the other hand, his hands are tied as the state keeps a heavy focus on him and the activities he may conduct. In a sense, Miron-Viro-Zmicir team is the main set of characters that drive the whole plot, even though the military and state characters to be seen later in the film always have the goal to disrupt their friendship and unwritten ideals of an alternative to the status quo.
The second part of the film takes us the military post near the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, where Miron is sent to do his conscription. The viewers can see from the car scene and Miron’s gaze the state of poverty and the effect of Chernobyl radiation on the local population and environment. In a sense, the camera changing its Point of View from Miron to one on Miron repeatedly makes us view the events from both perspectives, highlighting the personal dialectics. In the military post, Miron, in his words, matures up. He has to deal with characters and situations he has never imagined. Acting is superb in these scenes, from the head of military units whose voice and facial expressions make us feel violence, rudeness, and depersonalization, to Siery who is the iconic character standing against the pressure, intimidation and inflicted violence, the viewer once again realistically gets absorbed in this political drama. Moreover, in this part, the role of language is highlighted, even for viewers who may not understand Russian and Belarusian. The romance subplot started between Vera and Miron continues in the prison scene, and one can see that it is the fuel behind their activities and energizing of the opposition movement. In both first and second parts, one can also see that the characters have close connections with tools of communication, social media-blog, and cellphone. These tools, which are the only ways to communicate with the outside world, contrast with the military technology used by the Belarusian military, which seems to have a more repressive purpose, the dialectic in film iconography and messaging continues.
In the last part of the film, one can see how the state is finally winning the battle. Both Vera and Miron are jailed, and their bodies are deformed and subjugated. They have gained outlets to express and expose the system's secrecy, but it has come at personal costs to them, and those with they are associated as Zmicir. President Lukashenko’s image is brought down in public spaces and opposition activists, hand in hand, protest in the central parts of the capital, but the power seems invincible. In these scenes, editing, jump shot, music, and camera movements all convey a sense of chaos, struggle, and social tensions. In a sense, the same camera that narrates Viva Belarus is the one that exposes the rigging of the election. The camera is as dominant in the film as Miron and Vera’s will and all those Belarusians who demand a different reality and politics. The final scene as the opening scene shows Miron arrested in the police truck along with other protestors, beaten, bleeding, and succumbed to the brut forces of the Belarusian KGB and the whole state.
Discussion & Interpretation
Viva Belarus presents a stark reality to the viewer, forces of the state, and forces of opposition. The crowd in the club who chant freedom is aware of the danger of their transgression, but they feel and want a new Belarus. Interestingly, this dialectic, which is the main theme of the film, starts from a personal spark in Miron and Vera, but towards the end of the film, and through film plot and character, developments turn into a collective demand visible in the final protest scene. As such, the viewers can understand these changes to be universally applicable, in a sense that individual wills and unity of action can create an avalanche of decent. In a sense, one can ask if this political drama has served its goal, not only among the Belarusian audience but the world audience who may be sensitive to the idea of right-seeking, freedom, the personal and societal cost for those freedoms and revolutionary outcomes.
As discussed, throughout the film, the body of characters take centre stage in the drama. First, one views the frozen statues of Lenin, static body representations which are contrasted by moving bodies of Vera, Siery, Miron, and many others, whose movements, pain, and actions challenge the status quo. In a few scenes, one sees Miron and Siery in the washrooms that no one ever dares to enter and clean. However, their bodies are exposed, violated, and exploited, making the point clear that there can be no light at the end of the tunnel without these sacrifices. The beatings, bloody, torture and attack scenes show that that entire subjectivity of these individuals is under threat and destruction, through the attack on their bodies. Interestingly, this is paralleled with the bodies of the people (bald and influenced by radiation) who live in the Chernobyl affected areas, which is again another state-inflicted atrocity. Secondly, the film highlights that language could be one main driver of change in the national spirit. This contrast could be historical in Belarus and other Soviet satellite states, in which mother language was denied. Interestingly, in some dialogues, the military officials suggest the Russian is enough and why would someone disobey for the sake of speaking an inferior Belarusian language. One can even argue that language, singing, and writing are all body-inspired actions, so the real struggle is once again having an origin, in our mindset, but driven through bodily actions.
The film also depicts the repressive structure under the command of the military and the Belarusian KGB. The generals of the rank show the same attitude, language, mindlessness, and at the same time, anxiety towards the changing zeitgeist. For instance, in the election scene that Miron can secretly record, the three officials show all the characteristics of agents who live and thrive under a dictatorship. They lie, demean the other, disregard the truth and people’s demands, and once confronted them; they use propaganda and sheer violence to silence those. These scenes and themes are very resonant for people like Iranian audiences who may have experienced or read about these tragedies. As a result, the film once again has a universal message and extol individual heroism and collective awakening.
Viva Belarus, based on a true story, is an excellent work of cinema with a political subtext, but its meaning and messages are beyond politics and more commentary on human nature. Vera and Miron’s angst, romantic separation, search for truth, and struggle and punishment for their ideals are all features that, as human beings, we consider as virtues. Further, the film is a window to the outside world of the slice of Belarusian history in which people demand better lives and representation. In the age of media, global connectivity and this political drama and suppression, though once extinguished, can once again resurrect through the actions of a new generation of Belarusian who are willing to a pay price to achieve more freedom in their country.