At Industry@Tallinn, Belarusian independent filmmakers talk about the struggles of producing films and fighting for freedom
- The speakers discussed their experiences in exile, how the government controls cinema and uses it as a propaganda tool, and their political battles
On 24 November, as part of Industry@Tallinn & Baltic Event, the Nordic Hotel Forum’s Capella hosted a one-hour talk titled “Feels Like Home: Facing the Displacement and Building a Film Community in Exile”. Moderated by Ben Dalton, the panel came two years after the 2020 revolution during which many Belarusian filmmakers were forced to leave their home and start life anew, while trying to keep their independent projects alive.
The event saw the participation of Estonian documentary producer Marianna Kaat, and four Belarusians in exile – namely, director Andrei Kutsila, filmmaker Sasha Kulak, United Transitional Cabinet member Alina Koushyk, and Northern Lights Film Festival director and filmmaker Volia Chaikouskaya.
First, Chaikouskaya explained that there is no governmental support available for indie filmmakers, as there is no transparency inherent in the funding system currently in place and “no hope for building a fair one”.
Belarus’s Ministry of Culture hosts a cinematography department, which, every now and then, announces open calls listing a few topics that can be covered in the applications, which is already comparable to a form of censorship. The only option is to collaborate with giants such as Belarus Film, which Chaikouskaya defined as “totally corrupt” and a “propaganda machine” not interested in supporting independent films or festivals.
Once one is out of the Academy of Arts, there is basically no chance of working in film, and most graduates work in TV or on service productions for “cheap Russian TV series and soaps”.
Everything is controlled by the state – even the casting of documentaries – as Kitsula pointed out, adding how difficult it is to gain access to Belarus and Belarusian subjects when it comes to producing new docs to follow their battles. Then Kulak explained her amazement at finding out, when she was able to travel out of Belarus with her films, that in other countries, institutions can actually fund independent projects. “It was mind-blowing for me,” she revealed.
Kaat pointed out how today’s Belarusian film industry is still based on the Soviet model: “It’s absolutely shocking. How can that happen? The world is changing. I can say that even in Ukraine and Russia, the system has changed; they do have these kinds of independent resources that they [filmmakers] can apply for, but Belarus is exactly as it was during the Soviet Union, or even worse, [because at least] we had great names [back then].”
Owing to recent geopolitical events, she highlighted how Russia is heading in the same direction as Belarus. Koushyk stressed the political need to create an institute or an academy for Belarusian film, and to have their own national film body in exile and “move it to the country once they win”.
Later, Kaat and Chaikouskaya touched upon the problems related to national funds not awarding money to extra-EU directors, and finding co-producers and collaborators while attending markets, owing to the country’s problematic international status and the industry’s lack of knowledge on the current state of things. Chaikouskaya suggested that for Belarusian filmmakers, studying abroad may be a good option to enable them to leave the country, familiarise themselves with the foreign market and build a network of contacts in order to enter the industry.
When asked by Dalton about the most open, welcoming universities, Kaat answered Tallinn University. Chaikouskaya disagreed and said that the institution (Chaikouskaya is an alumna of Tallinn University’s Baltic Film and Media School) banned Belarusian students right after the start of the war. Kaat replied that the decision wasn’t a ban, but rather that it was done to ease Ukrainian students’ access, adding that she was hopeful that it would not be permanent and mentioning budget issues.
Koushyk made clear how “we need to distinguish the Belarusian government from the Belarusians who fight for freedom. […] We need more music, concerts and art. With these, we can win – we can go directly to the hearts of people.”
Kitsula added: “We don’t need to separate these problems – the dictatorship in Belarus and the war – they’re one and the same problem.”
Finally, Chaikouskaya spoke about the need to connect with Belarusian people, know the facts and emerge from our bubbles, as these are the steps necessary in a country that today hosts over 2,700 political prisoners.
The panel was brought to a close by a short Q&A session.
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