Belarusian filmmakers and industry professionals gathered in Berlin on Friday to announce the launch of the Belarusian Film Academy (BIFA), an organization formed to give a platform to independent filmmakers in the repressive former Soviet republic and staunch Kremlin ally.
Born in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when more than 130 Belarusian filmmakers signed a collective statement condemning the unprovoked act of aggression, the academy was created to “solidify, unite and support” their voices, according to co-founder Volia Chajkouskaya.
“Living under state censorship and control, we have been searching for ways to unite for a long time,” said Chajkouskaya, a producer, director and founder of the Northern Lights Film Festival. “Since [the start of the Ukraine war], we all continued to face challenges individually and felt that we should unite in solidarity to form a unified front.”
The Belarusian Film Academy’s founding members are Chajkouskaya; director Aliaksei Paluyan, whose 2021 documentary “Courage” (pictured) played in Berlin; Darya Zhuk, whose 2019 feature “Crystal Swan” was the first ever Belarusian submission for the Academy Awards’ international feature race; documentary filmmaker Andrei Kutsila, whose “When Flowers Are Not Silent” opened the Jihlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival in 2021; film critic Irena Kaciałovič; and senior programmer and consultant Igor Soukmanov.
Chajkouskaya described how Belarusian filmmakers face a hostile environment under repressive strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who has led the country since 1994 and was reelected in 2020 with 80% of the vote in an election that was widely viewed as rigged. Zhuk recalled joining widespread protests against those results, calling that show of solidarity “the happiest moment of my life.”
Since then, Lukashenko has cracked down on opposition voices. “We have 1400 people who are categorized as political prisoners, but there are thousands more that are not. They are being detained. They have no rights. The system is completely broken,” said Zhuk.
Announcing to a packed room at the Gropius Bas that she had recently become a mother, a visibly emotional Zhuk added: “I dream of a moment where I’ll be able to take my daughter and have her go meet her grandparents and great-grandparents. Unfortunately, it’s not safe.”
Along with the film academy’s launch, Friday’s event included a presentation of 10 up-and-coming projects from Belarusian filmmakers, who Zhuk applauded for traveling to Berlin “knowing that it’s not exactly safe.” She added: “Who knows what will happen to them? Who knows how it will be used against them when they go back?”
For many Europeans, the threats faced by Belarusians in their daily lives are “hard to imagine,” said European Film Academy CEO Matthijs Wouter Knol. Noting that Minsk, the Belarusian capital, is the same distance from Berlin as Paris, Knol added that the current war in Ukraine is a reminder that “this is a reality that can happen” anywhere in Europe.
“Film academies can change things when they bring filmmakers together, when they celebrate cinema, when they say what cinema is, and also become a voice of filmmakers,” he said, before extending an invitation to his Belarusian colleagues to join the Association of European Film Academies launching later this year. “This is necessary in all European countries, and this is also something that Belarus needs. And it’s great that it now has it.”