Issue 36 (2012)
Ekaterina Kibalchich: Belarusian Dream (Belorusskaia mechta, 2011)
reviewed by Masa Hilcisin © 2012
The documentary film Belarusian Dream by Ekaterina Kibalchich looks into political and electoral events which took place between 2010 and 2011 in Belarus. The film premiered at the One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Prague in March 2012. It was also screened at the International Film Festival WATCH DOCS Human Rights in Film in Warsaw, where it was noticed by supporters and critics alike. Belarusian Dream was also secretly screened in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, in November 2011.
The film is set in December 2010 during the presidential election in Belarus—the fourth election held since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The election was marked by brutal violence, detrimental propaganda and various threats from the country’s dictatorial government headed by Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko had been elected president in July 1994, a position he held for three terms. Under his rule Belarus became a police state. The president would take brutal measures against his opponents to ensure the continuation of his rule. According to international observers, none of the presidential elections held in Belarus were conducted fairly. A report of The International Election Observation noted that the vote count in the 2010 Belarus election was “bad” or “very bad” in almost half of all observed polling stations: “the count was largely conducted in a non-transparent manner, generally in silence, which undermined its credibility. In many cases, observers were restricted and did not have a real opportunity to observe the counting. In some cases, the figures recorded in the results of the polling station protocols were different upon their arrival at the Territorial Election Commissions (TEC)” (OSCE). This observation highlights just one example of the government’s restrictions on free speech and democracy. According to another report, published by the independent human rights organization “Article 19,” during this period the Belarusian government maintained an “openly restrictive and disproportionately harsh regulatory regime which it actively uses to oppress not only the opposition, but any views that differ from the official position of state authorities and of the president. The cynicism of that situation is particularly demoralizing for the Belarusian society” (Begoyan).
Kibalchich opens Belarusian Dream with the words of the civil rights activist Martin Luther King: “I have a dream.” The film’s anonymous narrator shares his personal experiences of the 18 years he spent under a dictatorship, but this is not only his story. He also represents the voice of many other Belarusians and their hopes for a better, democratic society. His political thoughts are presented chronologically, starting with his childhood memories of growing up in Soviet Minsk, to his participation in the first presidential elections of an independent Belarus and his musings on democratic reforms and the country’s 2010 presidential election. The documentary includes archival television footage dating back to the Soviet era and the period of stagnation, when Leonid Brezhnev ruled the Soviet Union for 18 years. The film’s narrator was 7 years old when Brezhnev died. His story includes footage from his childhood and the building of Minsk, which he saw as a “gateway to the communist paradise, a sort of City of the Sun.” The narrator recalls the summer of 1994, when Lukashenko was elected president of Belarus, as his country's most tragic historical moment. The narrative is accompanied by archival footage of television news, providing statements from major politicians during that time as well as scenes of ordinary citizens protesting against the government’s political agenda. One of Lukashenko’s primary goals since his first term in office was to unite Belarus and Russia. Despite protests, the majority of the population supported Lukashenko and believed they lived well when compared to other countries. After observing a gathering of local people in a park in the city of Bobruisk, the narrator states that “the dreams of a drink and snack were the real ‘Belarusian Dream’.” In order to build connections within Europe, Lukashenko opened his office in the autumn of 2010, organizing various receptions; one of his guests was the filmmaker Emir Kusturica. The film’s narrator describes the autumn of 2010 as one of the happiest times for his country, comparing it to the Prague Spring, a period of cultural and political liberalization for Czechoslovakia in 1968, and calling it “Minsk Spring.” It was a period of awakening for many people, as it shone an unflattering spotlight on Lukashenko’s dictatorship. Many opposition candidates (Andrei Sannikau, Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, Yaraslau Ramanchuk, Vital Rymasheuski, and others) were running their campaigns in the streets and on the Internet, since the state-controlled media were widely censored. This awakening also involved many ordinary citizens who had voted for Lukashenko during the previous presidential elections, but were now supporters of some of the opposition candidates. One of the reasons for this change was the country’s poor financial situation. During the “Minsk Spring” for the first time since independence neutral opinion polls were used in Belarus. The same dream is paradoxically devalued in the film, which shows people’s infatuation with the government's ideology, like the gathering at Bobruisk and the dissolution of hopes on October Square in the centre of Minsk on election night.The film shows millions of people taking to the streets for countless protests in an effort to stop Lukashenko from winning another presidential term. “Our dream for liberty has no limit. It leads us to the land and to the sea… It’s like a sun that never sets, like a star that never falls,” one of the protesters says in a song during a pre-electoral rally. The “Minsk Spring” ended on 19 December 2010, when people waiting to hear the final results of the election on the famed October Square were brutally attacked by police who used stun grenades in order to scatter the protesters. Footage of the attack, broadcast all over the world, showed one of the independent presidential candidates, Nyaklyaeu, being beaten by unidentified assailants. Nyaklyaeu was taken to hospital, where he was kidnapped during the night and kept hostage for several days. Lukashenko won another presidential term with 79.65 per cent of the vote. The film shows hundreds of people protesting against the old-new government. Footage of the protests, mainly held on October Square, is underscored by dramatic music and slow-motion images. During the brutal police attack which ended the “Minsk Spring,” dozens of protesters were injured and beaten up by armed police officers, including journalists and the film’s narrator. The attacks are enhanced by images of clothes strewn on the street after the protests and traces of blood. More than 600 people, including seven presidential candidates, were arrested and kept in a detention centre that night; some of the detainees had serious injuries. The film’s narrator was kept in a detention centre for 10 days. During those days, many influential people left the country, including the presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich and the journalist Natalya Radzina, to avoid arrest. This period of mass arrests and torture was likened to the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. With Lukashenko’s victory, the country headed once again toward economic destabilization and political unrest. The inevitable economic collapse is shown in the film, which rendered the Belarusian currency worthless while the cost of living continued to rise. The film also highlights the terrorist attack in Minsk’s Oktyabrskaya subway station on 11 April 2011. Twelve people were killed and dozens injured. News footage shows blood stains and injured people, as well as Lukashenko’s visit to the metro station where he laid flowers (AFP). These images are inter-cut with scenes from the Russian gangster movie Blind Man's Bluff (Zhmurki, dir. Aleksei Balabanov, 2005). In one scene, a mob boss takes his young son to a place where a murder had just been committed. Lukashenko did the same thing during his visit to the metro station after the blast: He brought his young son to the scene with him. By the end of 2011, some of the country's presidential candidates were released from the detention centre on probation; however, two of them remain in a maximum security facility. As one of the collocutors in the film mentions, the imprisoned presidential candidates were warned: “You open your mouth, you will go back behind bars.” The narrator never shows his face. At the very end of the film, he calls himself a “neighbor, best friend, one of you. […] Or maybe I am you. There are many of us. And that’s why it’s easier to keep living.”
Kibalchich constructs several layers in Belarusian Dream. First, she presents a personal experience as a reflection of a collective traumatized history, a dichotomy of private and public spaces, which helps redefine the meaning of “free society” within a political context. It is the narrator who shares his own story and experience. His voice-over leads the viewer throughout the entire film, which thus forms a documentary diary. The experiences he shares are very personal. The documentary footage is mixed with archival television footage evoking memories and beliefs of a past life. At the same time, the images bring to light today's social and political situation. The narrator’s personal experience is very much linked to a collective sense of lost freedom, isolation, and the people’s hope for a better future. Kibalchich associates this attachment with public and private spaces. The country’s state-controlled public spaces have completely overtaken people’s private spaces. The importance of public spaces and the right to freely use them was represented by the mass protests and arrests in the capital’s main square. Kibalchich clearly shows that public space is controlled by the government, which takes advantage of its position by limiting freedom of speech in such public spaces. One of the main theme throughout film is “freedom.” The director tries to contextualize freedom from a personal as well as societal level. She places it in a small orange bag, in which the narrator carries film reels at the beginning. Those reels present the viewers with valuable archival footage of the narrator’s memories of Minsk and his childhood. The people’s tireless fight for freedom can be seen in the large protests around the country and on October Square on the night of the 2010 elections. It can also be heard in the words of the song of Viktor Tsoi, “Our hearts demand change...,” which was part of the film’s soundtrack. The tone of the film is not commiserative, but restless, as the film takes a critical and sharp look at the country’s political situation. The filmmaker mostly uses images rather than words to make her point. There are almost no interviews in the film, just sporadic statements. Instead, it is the narrator’s voice that leads the story.
Kibalchich uses an expository mode of representation, which is usually presented by the narrator and concrete subtitles. Belarusian Dream starts by giving an overview of the country’s political history, but Kibalchich also uses poetic elements when showing, for example, images from the narrator's childhood to give the viewer “cinema in the film.” This doesn’t mean that Kibalchich steers away from objectivity. Rather, she shows this objectivity through a very personal experience. There are no rapid cuts in editing, and the only dramatic framing happens when Lukashenko says, during one of his slips: “I am a Russian president.” Ultimately, Belarusian Dream pays homage to those who fight for and believe in freedom.
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AFP, UN signals doubts over 'apparent' Minsk terrorist attack, ABC News 14 April 2011,
Begoyan, Anoush (2010), Freedom of Expression in Belarus, ARTICLE 19 Program Officer Presentation, House of Lords, 8 October 2008.
OSCE: Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe 2010, INTERNATIONAL ELECTION OBSERVATION: Republic of Belarus — Presidential Election, 19 December 2010, OSCE/ODIHR EOM, Belarus.
Belarusian Dream, 2011
Documentary, color, 50 minutes
Director: Ekaterina Kibalchich
Cinematography: Andrei Ushin
Camera: Alyaksandr Barazenka, Tatsyana Haurylchyk, and Alyaksandr Patseyeu
Editing: Andrei Stvolinsky
Additional crew: rap singer Vincent (soundtracks), and Dzyanis Tarasenka (voice over and actor)
Archive footage in the film were used from Channel One (Russia), Belapan Agency, and internet portal Nasa niva www.nn.by.
Ekaterina Kibalchich: Belarusian Dream (Belorusskaia mechta, 2011)
reviewed by Masa Hilcisin © 2012