Thursday, November 21, 2013

Viva Belarus! (orig. Żywie Biełaruś!) [2012]

MPAA (UR would be R)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing listing* (V. Kustava) review* (A. Stankiewicz & P. Śmiłowicz) review* (L. Kurpiewski) review* (M. Goetz) review* (M. Janik) review*

Viva Belarus! (orig. Żywie Biełaruś!) [2012] [IMDb] []* (directed and cowritten by Krzysztof Łukaszewicz [IMDb] []* as well as Franak Viačorka [IMDb] []*) played recently at the 25th Annual Polish Film Festival in America held in Chicago between Nov 8-24, 2013.

Franak Viačorka [IMDb] []*[YouTubeCh] is the son Vincuk Viačorka of a Belarusian nationalist who had been repeatedly harassed and jailed by authorities during Franak's childhood for his defense of Belarusian language and identity in their home Belarus.  A DOCUMENTARY IN ITS ENTIRETY (English subtitled) largely about the father and son and the pro-democracy movement in Belarus as of 2006 can be found on YouTube under the title "A Lesson of Belarusian."

Belarus has long been a borderland region between Catholic and Orthodox Christiandom.  To the West were Roman Catholic/Latin-alphabet using Poland and Lithuania, while to the east was Orthodox Christian/Cyrillic alphabet using Russia.   In previous centuries, the general region was identified on maps as Ruthenia, with Belarus sometimes called "White Ruthenia."  Byelorussia ("White Russia") was also an administrative region in Czarist Russia and a constituent "Soviet Socialist Republic" of the Soviet Union always with Minsk as its capital.  Between World Wars I and II, the western half of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Byelorussia (with boundaries redrawn) as well as today's Belarus had been part of Poland

I know _a little_ about the region for a couple of reasons: (1) a constituent part of my parents' pre-WW II Czechoslovakia was a region called Podkarpatská Rus (Sub-Carpathian Rus/Ruthenia) and (2) in my work as a (Roman) Catholic priest, I would run occasionally into folks who would identify themselves as having followed (or their parents having followed) the Ruthenian Rite.  A follower of the Ruthenian Rite would have been an Eastern or Byzantine Catholic following the Eastern/Byzantine Liturgy though in union with the Pope in Rome.  A Ruthenian Catholic would distinguish him/herself from a general Eastern/Byzantine Rite Catholic (a Greek Catholic or a Ukrainian Catholic) in that the Liturgy would be celebrated in the Ruthenian/Rusyn (or Belorusian...) language.

All this is to respond to those (both in the West and ... in the East...) who would ask "Is there a Belarusian culture or language?" that to the people of Belarus, the answer would a rather emphatic yes.  According to the 1999 census in Belarus, 36.7% declared it as the "language spoken at home," and 85.6% as their "mother tongue."  And yet, despite Belarusian (along with Russian) having an "equal status" according to Belarus' own Constitution, the indigenous Belarusian language remains often discouraged by the Russian-preferring regime dominated by Belarus' president, more-or-less for life, Alexander Lukashenko, a regime that remains more or less obviously allied with Russia to the East and remains "more Soviet" (still is effectively run by one party, Lukashenko's, still has collective farms, still retains the old Byelorussian SSR flag minus the hammer and sickle...) than post-Communist Russia itself.

This then forms the historical/political/cultural backdrop to the current film, which is based in good part on Franak Viačorka's life.

Franak's alter-ego in the film, Miron (played by Dźmitry Vinsent Papko [IMDb] []*) begins the film as something of a cheerful "slacker," or lead guitarist of a not particularly remarkable Belarusian punk band with a typically somewhat "over the top" / pretentious, young testosterone driven name "Forza" (meaning "Power") not particularly interested in politics but rather mostly in girls and letting off steam.  When one of his band's concerts goes a little overboard, however, with a band-member perhaps having had too much to drink (or perhaps simply swept-up by the emotion of playing onstage in a club at a rock concert...) starts chanting "Long live Belarus!" (which becomes the film's title...) and the young people in the club start chanting this as well, the aghast/jittery Stalinist authorities decide it's time to "regain control."  Tear gas canisters get thrown on stage and into the crowd and baton wielding riot police storm the place, quickly bringing to an end a show that in a normal country would have posed no more of a threat to "order" or "rule of law" than a drunk band-member at our Parish's annual Annunciata Fest starting to chant: "Long Live the East Side" or "Long Live Chicago!" (or perhaps somewhat more provocatively "Viva la East Side" or "Viva Mexico!" ;-)

In any case, the "powers-that-be" were not amused and stormed in.  Then to wreak petty vengeance on this rather average punk band with its somewhat pretentious/young testosterone driven name, the authorities sniff around the backgrounds of the band-members and discover that good ol' Miron had three times gotten a deferment from Belarusian military service and so ... no more.  In the days following that "awesome concert, with like tear gas canisters flying and police batons flailing about ..." (imagine how a 20 year old, any 20 year old would relate that story ...) Miron finds himself summoned to the draft board and ... Drafted.

So where does the Belarusian army send its problematic draftees, those drafted not for their fitness but more out of spite ... well, to a base somewhere near Chernobyl ... basically to a prison / modern day Gulag "that glows..." ;-) or more appropriately :-(.  Note that while Chernobyl itself was located on the Ukrainian side of the Ukranian/Belarusian border, the most contaminated areas as a result of the nuclear disaster there were in Belarus.

But even in Belarus, "Times They Are a Changing ..." So even from this military base for "politically unreliable conscripts" Miron is able to use a clandestine cell-phone to report news of the goings-on at his base to his girlfriend Viera (played in the film by Karolina Gruszka [IMDb] []*) who places his reports somewhat anonymously onto a blog.  (Note this is based on Franak Viačorka's personal experience as after he was drafted into the Belarusian army he maintained a blog called "Life of a Belarusian Solider" published by an independent Belarusian newsoutlet called Belapan to the obvious consternation of the Belarusian military that repeatedly sought to isolate / punish him for this during his time of service.  But he always seemed to get his news out anyway.

Among the most notable abuses that he reported on was the beating of a Belarussian draftee who had refused to take the loyalty oath to the country in Russian but rather insisted that he be allowed to do so in his native Belarusian.  For despite Belarus' nominal independence,  RUSSIAN REMAINED THE ONLY OFFICIAL LANGUAGE until recently IN THE BELARUSIAN ARMY.  Once reported "outside" (by Miron in the film and perhaps in real life by Viačorka through his blog) THAT CONTRADICTION could not stand.  So sometime later, Belarusian was allowed to be used as a second alternate language IN THE BELARUSIAN ARMY (as per its 'equal dignity' guaranteed by the Belarus' Constitution).

Of course much still ensues.  After all, running an independent blog in an authoritarian state pining for "simpler" (totalitarian) times would be expected to be risky business...

And at one point Miron, now more in the spirit of Franak's father Vincuk Viačorka, decides to run for Belarus' Parliament (Vincuk Viačorka had headed Belarus' opposition party the BPF Party from 1999-2007) ... with the expected problems and results.

All in all, the film is a very interesting (and very sad) one, about the Opposition's challenges in trying to bring freedom to Europe's last dictatorship. 

At' žije Bělarusko!

* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser.

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