Milos Stehlik highlights the courageous work of Belarusian filmmaker Viktor Dushek
When he was a little boy, Victor Dashuk was scared that if he misbehaved, he would be locked inside a rabbit cage. Now 64-years old, Dashuk feels he is living in what he calls “freedom in a cage” in his native Belarus. The “rabbit hutch” even made it into the title of a Dashuk documentary, “Reporting from the Rabbit Hutch”.
The two films by Dashuk available in the U.S are both fearless. They got here through the vision and daring of independent distributor, Cinema Purgatorio. The 1999 film, “Long Knives Night,” is banned in Belarus. It starts with a difficult sequence surrounding a group of Belarus Satanists – painted and dressed for the role - who crucify and burn a dog on a cross. They say the rituals give them a sense of power, and Dashuk later links this to the man he sees as the chief Satan of Belarus, its president Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko, he says, likes when opposition parliament deputies get beat up, or when he goes to watch prison executions.
Brave journalists and opposition figures give on-camera testimonies to sketch out Lukashenko’s relentless hold on the former Soviet Republic: eliminating opposition politicians by sending them to prison on false charges, or, disappearing them altogether. In “Rabbit Hutch,” Dashuk lists a 49-year old journalist who died in what was likely a staged car accident. Public protesters are often beaten up by police. Gennady Karpenko, a main rival to Lukashenko, also died under mysterious circumstances. Victor Gonchar was kidnapped in 1999. Dashuk’s friend, Dmitry Zavadsky, a TV cameraman for an independent Russian TV channel, parked his car at the Minsk airport, never to be seen again.
Lukashenko, who heads what’s often called Europe’s last dictatorship, and whose actions read as psychopathic, is not alone in receiving Dashuk’s wrath in his films. In “Long Knives Night,” he traces the history of Soviet leadership – from Stalin and Lenin to Krushchev and Brezhnev. This pathological dependence on mythologized leaders - “gods” as Dashuk calls them – bred generations of what he called “mainly obedient servants, mean and spiteful by nature, who turned into servile lackeys capable of sacrificing to the god-leader even their soul.” Dashuk thinks this is a kind of mass psychosis from which the Belarus people have yet to emerge. The most visible example was after Stalin’s death in 1953, in which a brutal dictator, responsible for the death of millions, was mourned like a savior. And so, Dashuk says in his film, “people wait for a new God to save them – to emerge out of the cloud and save them, the sinners.”
Lukashenko rules by virtue of gangs who pledge fealty to him for their security, power and economic well-being in a climate of lies, fear and violence. No one knows how many people work for the security services in Belarus. Lukashenko introduced a new constitution, which concentrates power in one office --- his, as President – therefore making him “a czar.” Part of the mass psychology that keeps Lukashenko in power is providing the illusion of freedom, while keeping people at odds with each other. Lukashenko rules by dividing the nation. “Once,” Dashuk says, “we hated our enemies who invaded us and whom we fought against. Today we hate one another.”
At the end of “Long Knives Night,” Dashuk turns to Chernobyl, straddling the Ukrainian-Belarus border. Not just electric power, but the “hearts” of nuclear weapons were made there. Now the area is too radioactive to be inhabited for at least 2,000 years. The last shots of the film are from a helicopter, as sharpshooters kill wild animals, in order to test them for radioactivity. The radiation levels of the unfortunate beasts, invariably, always turn out too high.
Milos Stehlik is the director of Facets Multimedia and
Worldview’s weekly film contributor. His commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or WBEZ.
Here's a link to a trailer for Long Knives Night.