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‘Viva Belarus!’ Shows Stalinism is Alive and Well

Belarusian musician Dzmitry (Vincent) Papko plays the leading role of army conscript Miron Zakharka in "Viva Belarus!"
“Viva Belarus!", a groundbreaking feature film from Polish director Krzysztof Lukaszewicz portraying the harsh life of nonconformist youth living under the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, premieres at Prague’s Febiofest on March 19. The film is loosely based on the experiences of Franak Viačorka, now a journalist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), during his time as an army conscript and blogger using social media to push for democracy in Belarus. Viačorka, who co-wrote the screenplay, sat down with RFE/RL to discuss the film and the impact he hopes it will have.

RFE/RL: What did you set out to accomplish when you began writing the screenplay?

Franak Viačorka: First it was Lukaszewicz’s idea. We tried to show in 100 minutes the epoch that we call "Lukashism.” Maybe it’s hard to believe, but this is really what it looks like in Belarus now. It’s the rebirth of the Soviet Union. We want people in Europe and America to see that in the 21st century there is a country in Europe where people are treated the same as in Stalin’s time.

At a concert in Minsk, Miron inadvertently works the crowd into a freedom frenzy, landing himself in an army barracks.
At a concert in Minsk, Miron inadvertently works the crowd into a freedom frenzy, landing himself in an army barracks.
RFE/RL: The film’s plot incorporates your own experiences and those of other democratic activists into one narrative. How are these particular experiences representative of what activists face in Belarus?

Viačorka: My part is based on my experiences when I was arrested and then drafted into the army, despite medical limitations, because of my political activities. I wrote a blog there and participated in elections. It’s also a story of love behind barricades. 22-year-old Young Front activist Nasta Palazhanka is waiting for her husband, who has been in prison for three years. She told me about [Belarusian] KGB prisons, where she spent several months herself after the 2010 elections, and you can see pieces of this portrayed in the film. It’s also a story about those same elections, in which seven of the 10 presidential candidates were imprisoned.

RFE/RL: The film also touches on the issue of Chernobyl, showing how the lack of transparent, democratic governance has led to the disenfranchisement of those living in the contaminated zone. Was the film a vehicle for demonstrating how the regime affects average people’s day-to-day lives?

Viačorka: Yes, and I think these stories resonate in other post-Soviet countries. Every country that lacks real democracy—Ukraine, Azerbaijan or Russia—has similar problems. At the same time, it is symptomatic of Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule that he tries to hide the problems at Chernobyl. Local officials act like local “Lukashenkas” to profit from the vulnerability of others.

Using a contraband phone, Miron blogs about hazing and poor sanitation in the army.
Using a contraband phone, Miron blogs about hazing and poor sanitation in the army.
RFE/RL: After you met Lukaszewicz and got financial backing, the filming was done quite quickly, wasn’t it?

Viačorka: It was very fast because harsh things were—and still are—happening in Belarus. Vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights and Nobel Nominee Ales Byalyatski was imprisoned. Presidential candidates were being tortured in prison, and my activist friends were persecuted by various means. I also had been threatened by the KGB. Movies can sometimes have a much bigger impact than political activities themselves.

RFE/RL: Was it difficult to balance the political message and keep the film character-driven?

Viačorka: The characters address a lot of topics in the film, beyond the key issue of Lukashenka's regime. Less educated people swallow the bait of populism, but the youth that have access to the Internet want to live in a free country. Then, there is the problem of the conflict of values. The characters are normal young people. They want to be free, creative and happy in love, but their personal lives are grounded in these repressions. How does one avoid becoming part of the soulless machine of suppression? How does one keep dignity and love in one’s heart? The price is high.

RFE/RL: How did you deal with language in the film?

Viačorka: The hatred towards the Belarusian language is part of the Soviet psychology promoted by the regime. The dialogue in the film is in Russian and Belarusian, but the main characters speak Belarusian, and throughout the film they struggle just for the right to hear and speak their native language. Just by speaking Belarusian, people make a statement that they are opposed to the regime. It’s the first movie about modern Belarus in the Belarusian language. I hope the film will open the eyes of the world to this country.

The real life inspiration for the film, Franak Viačorka, in prison in February 2011.
The real life inspiration for the film, Franak Viačorka, in prison in February 2011.
RFE/RL: And at home? Is there any chance of reaching viewers inside the country?

Viačorka: The film was outlawed in Belarus before it was even made. It was slandered by state-run media in advance. Some actors have been blacklisted. We held a screening in Belarus for the actors in December 2012 and nobody arrested us, but I don’t see any possibility for us to show this movie publicly in Belarus while Lukashenka is in power. We’ll try to organize some screenings near the border with Poland and Lithuania, since many Belarusians cross the border to shop. But the film is geared also toward foreigners—to remind them of what communism is and what its new incarnations can be. We hope the movie might lead decision-makers to understand that realpolitik helps with business, but doesn’t help people achieve freedom or prosperity.

--Emily Thompson