Documenting the ruthless Belarusian regime

By Saul Austerlitz

Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2010

Victor Dashuk's movies show, and may add, dangers

A frame from Belarusian director Victor Dashuk's documentary 'Long Knives Night.' A frame from Belarusian director Victor Dashuk's documentary "Long Knives Night."

A helicopter skims over trees, its main doors open, guns pointed toward the ground. Far below, animals scurry, but they're no match for the bullets that hurtle from the hunters' weapons. This could be shock footage from a nature documentary; but the context, nestled as it is in director Victor Dashuk's act of reportage from his native Belarus, tells us that this juxtaposition of hunters and hunted is entirely metaphorical. "I was born under Stalin,'' Dashuk tells us on the soundtrack, "studied under Khrushchev, raised children under Brezhnev, married off my son under Gorbachev, married off my daughter under Yeltsin. I am bringing up grandchildren under Lukashenko.''

Lukashenko? The name rings few bells for Americans who do not regularly peruse the pages of The Economist or Foreign Affairs. But Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of Belarus since 1994, haunts the imagination of Dashuk, whose films "Long Knives Night'' and "Reporting From a Rabbit Hutch'' are being released jointly on DVD this month. Dashuk is only too aware of the potential cost to him. "Not for a second do I doubt that they will be after me as soon as they know that this film exists,'' he observes as his camera zooms in on shadowy government figures in dark suits. But in a country where the act of speaking out has the potential to prompt a murderous response, Dashuk is possessed by a perversely talkative imp. His documentary explorations of a country in perpetual crisis are chatty and slightly disjointed, more a series of episodes linked by outrage and despair than a carefully crafted argument.

"Long Knives Night'' (1999) is both an act of first-person reportage and an extended polemic. The two modes scrabble for supremacy, but it's the latter that emerges triumphant. Dashuk begins the film with footage of earnest 20-somethings in what looks like Kiss makeup crucifying a dog in their own version of a satanic black mass. The act, shocking and banal all at once, is Dashuk's expression of the perversion of Belarus, always in the act of seeking out a new dark lord for its own rituals of submission. Dashuk is furious at Belarusians' passive obeisance as Lukashenko consolidated power, used the secret police to stifle dissent, and violently removed journalistic obstacles to his rule. "I seem to have been living in a pagan country where people trust and worship each leader as if he were God,'' Dashuk observes, and his wax-museum assemblage of Soviet and post-Soviet leaders onscreen places Lukashenko at the tail end of a century of authoritarian, pseudo-populist despots, plaster dummies posing as strongmen.

"Reporting From a Rabbit Hutch'' is 16 minutes shorter (at 40 minutes) and more focused, rounding up footage of demonstrations against the Lukashenko regime. The bloodless folksiness of Lukashenko's state-controlled rituals contrasts with the raw imagery of beaten, bloodied, and abused protesters. One reformist politician is arrested by trench-coated goons as a crowd of bystanders demand documentation: "Introduce yourself! Show your ID!'' None is provided. The scene is genuinely, painfully hideous - all the more so for its lack of directorial polish. Dashuk's artistic coarseness is also occasionally his strongest suit. "Rabbit Hutch'' is a litany of the suffering and abused, culminating with one opposition journalist's wishing that "I'd like to exterminate my fear.'' Dashuk would, too, and these reports filed from within the belly of the cruel beast are expressions of a desire more than they are reflections of a reality. In seeking to document his country's upheavals, Victor Dashuk has most succeeded in documenting his own agonies.


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