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BERLINALE 2021 Berlinale Special

Aliaksei Paluyan and Jörn Möllenkamp • Director and producer of Courage

“We were prepared for the shoot, but we were not naïve – we knew we might get arrested”

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- BERLINALE 2021: We chatted to the team behind this film, which was shot in Belarus, also during the heated protest that swept through the country after last year’s presidential election

Aliaksei Paluyan and Jörn Möllenkamp • Director and producer of Courage
Aliaksei Paluyan (left) and Jörn Möllenkamp

Cineuropa got a chance to talk to the filmmakers behind the Berlinale Special offering Courage [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Aliaksei Paluyan and Jörn M…
film profile
]
, shot in Belarus and also taking in the heated protest that swept through the country after the presidential election in the summer of 2020. The film was directed by Belarusian native Aliaksei Paluyan, who graduated from the Kunsthochschule Kassel, and was produced by Jörn Möllenkamp through his company Living Pictures Production.

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Cineuropa: Where are you now, and are you safe?
Aliaksei Paluyan: Yes, I’m safe. I’ve been in Kassel, Germany, since September 2020.

How about your protagonists, the actors from the Belarus Free Theatre? From what I hear, Lukashenko’s regime is constantly stifling the opposition as well as independent artists.
AP: I honestly think it’s just a matter of time. The repression is so widespread that it will not come as a surprise. It’s already happening, in a way. Pavel and Denis also have a band, and on 13 February, they were arrested after the concert they performed, along with their audience. Around 70 people went to jail, and Pavel and Denis were released after two weeks. That’s just one example of how absurd and impossible the situation in Belarus is, in our view.

You started shooting your documentary some time before the protests. Lukashenko’s regime has lasted a long time, so did you expect that the protests against him would become part of the film?
AP: We started shooting Courage in December 2018, and since then, we had just been observing our protagonists. For sure, the protest of 2020 changed the structure of the film a great deal. It wasn’t a surprise for us; however, we expected an escalation of the political situation to happen later, say in 2021, because of the integration process with Russia. But the coronavirus and the election in 2020 sped up the protests, and the summer of 2020 changed the whole Belarusian reality as well as the lives of the three protagonists.

But the Belarus Free Theatre was politically involved even before that time, correct?
AP: Yes, they did it all the time. Denis, Marina and Pavel founded the theatre almost 16 years ago, and it’s nothing new for them. Denis left the group in 2017, but he continues to make art in other ways.

Marina recites the monologue of a woman whose husband was kidnapped 16 years ago.
Jörn Möllenkamp: She is impersonating the wife of a politician, who was kidnapped when he was running against Lukashenko in the election. He was never found.

AP: This theatre works with real-life stories, which can be called “documentary stage plays”. The one you mention is no different; Nikolai, the director of the theatre whom you can see during the Skype call, is a friend of that politician’s wife. She told him this story, and he based the play on it.

In the scenes shot during the protest, the camera is right in the middle of the action; how did you work in such dangerous and unpredictable conditions?
AP: We started the project with German DoP Jesse Mazuch, who worked, for example, with Sergei Loznitsa on Austerlitz [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
and some of his other documentaries. He has his own style, a very “Berlin” one. Later, we worked with Tanya Haurylchyk. We knew the conditions would be very hard, and we needed someone local, who spoke the language and knew the nuances. We were prepared for the shoot, but we were not naïve – we knew we might get arrested. We brought along a special, small camera, in case it happened. As for the process, we tried to be invisible. We went to all of the “hotspots” to shoot material, and we were very lucky.

JM: It was crazy. Aliaksei contacted me during the shoot and told me that the camera could break and be taken away. I told him to forget about the camera and just focus on surviving. On two or three occasions, they were grabbed by the police, who tried to force them into the vans. I had some sleepless nights, as I felt responsible for the crew.

Do you think that Courage will change anything or help the protesters in some way?
AP: I don’t want to be so romantic and naïve, but I really hope that it will change something. It’s one of the reasons why we made this film.

JM: With this movie, we can give a voice to a country that is being silenced at the moment. The regime is forcing out foreign journalists, and they imprison local ones all the time. By screening the film at the Berlinale, we at least have a chance to keep attention focused on this topic, and through this, maybe we’ll change something. It’s really scary that even in the German media, you don’t get “new news” from Belarus, only “old” material that people have already seen.

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