Boris Guts's latest movie hasn't even been released, but it's already reportedly banned in both Russia and Belarus.
That's because the movie deals with a topic highly sensitive for those in power in both countries: anti-government protests, and in particular the series of mass rallies that convulsed Belarus in the aftermath of an election a year ago -- on August 9, 2020 -- that was widely seen as rigged.
The Russian director was hopeful that MINSK, his unsettling drama about a young couple in the Belarusian capital who get caught up in the state's brutal crackdown, would reach a sizeable audience.
"The goal was to show 90 minutes in the life of a simple couple from Minsk who got embroiled in this horror. So that the viewer would be unable to blink even for a second, and would become part of it," he said in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service.
But Guts, who has roots in Belarus, soon understood that his chances of winning the hearts of viewers in the two countries he knows best would be scuppered due to a decision allegedly made at the very top.
In June, the Telegram channel Nexta-Live published what it said were screenshots of an official report filed on June 26 by Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makey, containing minutes of his meeting with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow.
Much of the report focused on trade and diplomatic cooperation over Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 despite international condemnation. But it also, astoundingly, referenced Guts's film.
"I secured support from the Russian side for a ban in Russia on the fictional film MINSK," read the document, whose authenticity has not been established independently by RFE/RL. "[It] is absolutely provocative and aimed at fueling protest moods in Belarus."
Guts never expected such high-level scrutiny, but he got a hint of the reception his crew would face when he applied for permission to film in the Tula region, south of Moscow.
"We were ultimately prohibited from filming in Russia under various pretexts -- politics, the coronavirus, and so on," he said.
The crew ended up moving the project to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, parts of which had Soviet-era buildings that resembled those that dominate the outskirts of Minsk.
The trailer for the movie, which was released in July and has close to 400,000 views on YouTube, is a high-octane clip that begins with romantic scenes from the couple's quiet life in Minsk, and quickly unravels into shaky video footage of police beatings and torture.
Guts says many of the scenes were reconstructed from videos posted online last summer by protesters and citizen journalists, and the comments beneath the trailer suggest that he's been successful in capturing the atmosphere of those tense days in Belarus.
"I could never have imagined how people who survived war felt when they watched films about war," one user, Sergei Vasilyev, wrote. "Now, it seems, I understand it a bit."
'Hell All Over Again'
"The trailer alone leaves me feeling funny," wrote Ilya Gubin. "I'm afraid I won't be able to watch this movie, because I don't want to absorb that hell all over again."
Guts said it was emotionally the hardest project he's undertaken. To create a realistic atmosphere redolent of the conditions faced by protesters arrested by the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus since 1994 and claimed a landslide victory in the election a year ago, Guts says he "morally humiliated" his actors in various ways to elicit anger and emotion.
"After every take, all the actors, [camera] operators, the producer and the director, everyone hugged," he said. "Because without affection and intimacy it was hard to endure."
Guts said he decided to make the film almost as soon as the protests began following the election. He said he learned that a friend of his had been raped by police officers, and that another friend was arrested while he was walking to a fruit market with his son.
"All of this built up inside of me and I immediately decided that I would make a film whatever happens," he said. "I'm not a politician, revolutionary, or journalist. I'm a filmmaker, and that's all I can do to help my friends in Belarus."
He said that, despite the report of Russia's decision to ban the film, he will be applying for a distribution license from the country's Culture Ministry, and has at least one distributor lined up and willing to show the film if the license is granted.
"The film's not yet ready, no one's yet seen it, the sound is still being edited," he said. "But they've already banned it."