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Belarus: Film About Partisans Goes Against Official Grain

A montage of images from the film Prague, 13 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The 40th international film festival in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, which took place last week, showed a rare bird in the world of cinema -- a Belarusian feature film. The film, which bears the double title "Occupation -- Mystery Plays," failed to win a prize at the festival but its 33-year-old director, Andrey Kudzinenka, did not appear to be particularly upset.

The film had already been shown at festivals in Russia, the Netherlands, Israel, Germany, Estonia, Ukraine, and quite recently in Poland, where it got an award. Kudzinenka told RFE/RL that he did not expect any recognition in Karlovy Vary, two years after his film was released.

Kudzinenka's 90-minute film is actually a collection of three separate novellas -- the "mystery plays" of the title -- named in their successive order as "Adam and Eve," "Mother," and "Father." The novellas depict western Belarus under the Nazi occupation in 1942 but -- like medieval "mystery plays" that were based on Biblical stories -- they are not without deeper, "Biblical" undertones.

Kudzinenka shot the film with a digital camera and subsequently copied it to celluloid. He says he is unable to estimate the total budget of the film, which was supported by a grant from the Netherlands, but its production costs were surely below $50,000.

A Partisan 'Adam And Eve'

"Adam and Eve" shows a Belarusian youth named Adam being recruited for the anti-Nazi guerillas by a Russian partisan. The Russian simultaneously gives Adam his first combat assignment -- to execute a fellow villager who defected from the guerillas to live a peaceful, even if physically exhausting life with his mistress Eve, a nymphomaniac Pole. Unable to resist Eve's lascivious charms, Adam obtains his first sexual experience and kills the Russian, while the fellow villager hangs himself in fear of the partisans' revenge. Adam stays with Eve, forgetting the partisans' cause.

This frivolous story alone could be anathema to Belarusian censors, as the guerilla war against the Nazi invaders in World War II has become an officially consecrated myth in Belarus. According to official sources, some 350,000 people took to Belarus's forests to fight the Nazis.

In official Belarusian postwar historiography, the Soviet guerillas were portrayed as an ideologically driven nationwide resistance movement against the Nazi occupation and for the return of the much-coveted Soviet Union. No erotic frolics, even in the context of the most unambiguous sacrifice for the liberation cause, were allowed in films about partisans made by the state filmmaker Belarusfilm, which was dubbed "Partisanfilm" in the Soviet era for its huge output of war pictures.

Kudzinenka's second novella appears to be even more controversial than the first. A child living with a mute mother is run over by two Germans on a motorcycle and dies. Partisans kill one German and wound the other but fail to find him. The Belarusian mother treats the wounded Nazi, feeding him with milk from her own breast. After the Nazi is back on his feet, he leaves for his unit while the mother goes apparently insane out of grief and burns herself in her house.

Official Obstruction

Initially, Kudzinenka's film obtained an official go-ahead for distribution in Belarus. But the authorities changed their decision after the movie was qualified to be shown at an international film festival in Moscow last year. It was the first time that a Belarusian movie was presented at that forum. Kudzinenka believes that the authorities were envious that his film was made by an independent filmmaker, not by Belarusfilm. Moreover, Kudzinenka says the authorities were worried that his film would seriously undermine the official Belarusian mythology about the Soviet partisans.

However, he is in two minds about the ban on his film in Belarus. "[The authorities] revoked the [distribution] license -- on one hand, they did a very bad thing, because we made the film primarily for Belarusians, who are the only people capable of spotting all the subtleties in it," Kudzinenka said. "But on the other, they [simultaneously] made publicity for the film."

In the third novella, a small boy longs for his father who left their village before the war, when it was in Poland, for the Soviet Union and never returned. The boy's mother lives with a Belarusian policemen, that is, with a Nazi collaborator. A partisan turns up claiming to be the boy's father and exploits the boy's affection for him to facilitate his comrades' way into the boy's house in order to kill the collaborator.

Another partisan, with ostensibly Asiatic features, slits the throats of the policeman and the boy's mother, only to be subsequently knifed to death by his comrade-in-arms, a Belarusian who boasts that his great-grandfather participated in an anti-Russian uprising in the 19th century. "My great-grandfather did not fight [the Russians] so that some Turks could slit the throats of our women," the Belarusian says after the slaughter ends.

'The Real Truth'

Kudzinenka says he was given a peculiarly worded official explanation of the ban on his film in Belarus. "They wrote verbatim the following: 'The film does not correspond to the real truth, it can insult the sensitivities of war veterans and make a bad influence on the education of the rising generation.' It is a sort of Soviet formulation, but the most interesting thing in it is the expression 'real truth,'" he said.

It is difficult to figure out what "real-truth" elements are missing from Kudzinenka's film from an official viewpoint, but one aspect of the film seems to be in stark contrast to all partisan movies produced by Belarusfilm. There is no ideology in Kudzinenka's three stories. His heroes choose to join or abandon the warring sides, be it Soviets or Germans, not for ideological reasons but to pursue purely private goals and impulses. In this they seem to be closer to real life, even if simultaneously further away from the "real truth" of the official myth.

The Belarusian weekly "Nasha Niva" hailed the release of "Occupation -- Mystery Plays" as the birth of independent, de-Sovietized Belarusian cinema. The film, a rarity in Belarus because of its independent production and demythologizing bite, is even rarer because of its original use of the Belarusian language. Prior to Kudzinenka's movie, virtually all feature films in Belarus were made in Russian and only sporadically dubbed into Belarusian.

See also:

World War II -- 60 Years After: Collaborators And Partisans In Belarus