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“Courage,” the first documentary feature from filmmaker Aliaksei Paluyan, chronicles the 2020 demonstrations in the former Soviet republic of Belarus against President Alexander Lukashenko. Considered Europe’s last dictator, he has remained in office since 1994, just a few years after the territory gained independence following the disintegration of the U.S.S.R.
None of this elemental historical background, however, makes its way to the screen save for a brief title card before the credits. Those unfamiliar with this nation and its internal turmoil might only decipher snippets of context in sporadic dialogue. For the sake of immersion, which he achieves via kinetic footage, Paluyan renders the whole a tad obtuse.
The majority of U.S. viewers, unfortunately, won’t register that the white-red-white flag that paves the streets is not the country’s internationally recognized emblem but a symbol that citizens have adopted to distance themselves from the regime and its ties to Moscow. An online search revealed this essential detail missing from the film itself.
Sorrowful songs and images from past protests note the cyclical urgency of the events, a plight inherited from a previous generation under the same oppressor. The prime subjects of the film are a politically involved acting troupe participating in the mass marches.
One of those, blacklisted from performing, now earns a living as an auto mechanic, while others weigh the possibility of exile as a last resort when caught between patriotism and self-preservation. Their resolve to stage a play depicting recurrent atrocities reiterates both their valor and why art must endure even in life-threatening crises.
Honoring its title, “Courage” finds its most goosebump-inducing imagery in the solemn moments of a hurt yet emboldened populace standing united: a stolen glimpse of a man crying, a breathtaking minute of silence for a fallen comrade, or the momentarily hopeful gesture of an officer adorning his shield with a flower as a sign of support.
The fiery contrast comes in the anger directed at the riot police. “We won’t forget, we won’t forgive,” chant thousands with virulent force toward those in uniform who seem indifferent to the suffering of the citizenry to which they belong. In the thick air suffocating the capital city of Minsk in the aftermath, there’s fear of retaliation, but equal hope that this time the course of justice might finally change. Their tyrant, for now, remains in power.
In Belarusian and Russian with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 12, Laemmle Glendale
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