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Belarusian industry professionals work on “bridging the gap” at Tallinn Black Nights
Nine months after the launch of the Belarusian Independent Film Academy, filmmakers in exile discuss their plans to revive the industry
On 16 November, the Nordic Hotel Forum hosted a panel titled “Bridging the Gap: From Exile to the Creation of the Belarusian Independent Film Academy”, co-organised by the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival and the Northern Lights Nordic-Baltic Film Festival.
The event, moderated by Cineuropa’s Davide Abbatescianni, saw the participation of five Belarusian film professionals – Alexander Mihalkovich, Mara Tamkovich, Volia Chajkouskaya, Igor Soukmanov and Yuliya Samailouskikh.
The panellists discussed what they are doing for their industry and healthy ways of integration for Belarusian filmmakers to maintain their identity while opening up and expanding to the world.
After the opening remarks, the floor was given to Soukmanov, who was asked to retrace the steps that led up to the launch of the Belarusian Independent Film Academy (BIFA) at the Berlinale earlier this February. He explained how Belarusian cinema has been in the shadow for a long time after the country gained its independence, and how that cinematic practice has been fully controlled by the state with no concrete prospects of growth or development, and no connection with the outer world, except for Russia.
The digital revolution, he argued, shaped a new generation of filmmakers – mostly people now in their twenties and thirties – who were also among the most active during the 2020 protests triggered by another rigged election. “The only chance for them to survive was either to leave or to stay, but with no future [in sight] and without continuing their careers,” he said.
Being aware of Belarusian professionals’ artistic potential and their urgent need to express themselves freely, independent filmmakers reunited and signed a special anti-war statement following Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine.
Then, it took almost one year for the team to kick off BIFA. Soukmanov highlighted how Belarusian independent cinema doesn’t represent in any way the Belarusian government and how BIFA aims to forge new partnerships with institutions, festivals and funds and to strengthen current ones.
Chajkouskaya underscored how the body aims to keep “high standards” by accepting only members with a committed filmography who have contributed to the development of Belarus's independent cinema. For the time being, the Academy only hosts film professional, and doesn’t include those working in TV. "It’s important to stimulate those people who have the potential to work in film, so that they can [one day] be part of the Academy and we can create together our independent space. Some of our members are still in Belarus, and we can’t reveal their names owing to safety reasons," she said, adding that the organisation currently includes over 20 members. The support of the European Film Academy and key figures has been crucial to gain “validation” at both the industry and the institutional level. To date, BIFA is officially registered as an Estonian entity.
Next, Mihalkovich zoomed in on his film Motherland [+see also:
film profile], co-directed with Hanna Badziaka and a nominee at this year’s European Film Awards. He spoke about the different challenges he faced both in pre-production and production, which made financing and keeping the subjects safe very challenging. For example, he mentioned that several big forums and industry events ended up publishing full information about their project. "There’s a knowledge gap in the industry between what you’re really facing and what people think you’re facing," he concluded.
Tamkovich touched on her latest two projects, both produced by Polish outfits. The first is a short titled Live (screened in the Belarusian competition of the Northern Lights Nordic-Baltic Film Festival) and her debut feature, which has just wrapped post-production and is now seeking a world premiere. Both films are interconnected and inspired by the 2020 events. In detail, the short follows two journalists broadcasting from the Square of Changes in Minsk, whilst the feature "builds on the same starting point of the short but moves further" and follows the same protagonists.
Chajkouskaya spoke about her debut feature, which has been in the works since 2020 and revolves around “four women challenged by the Belarusian dictatorship.” She didn’t disclose too many details owing to safety reasons, but she confirmed that the project is being co-produced by partners such as Arte and HBO.
Asked about the past and the present of the Northern Lights Nordic-Baltic Film Festival (Chajkouskaya is one of the founders and its programme director), she explained how the festival kicked off in 2015 in Belarus and was provisionally halted owing to the pandemic and the country’s widespread protests in 2020. After some months, the festival was then held digitally and, since 2022 and thanks to its collaboration with Tallinn Black Nights, it became a hybrid event with on-site screenings organised in Estonia and Lithuania and a programme of 40 films from Belarus, Ukraine and the Nordic-Baltic region, plus several Q&As, panels and masterclasses.
Towards the end of the panel, Samailouskikh showed two festival trailers. She also spoke about the Vodblisk platform, funded by Lithuania's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and described as a true "online theatre for independent Belarusian cinema," wherein one can watch content that can’t be found otherwise owing to censorship and state control.
The panel was rounded off by a short Q&A session.
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