Under the Hood
documentary film by Mark Byrne and Rob Dennis
(Ireland / Lithuania 2013, 75’)
a Planet Korda Pictures (Dublin) / ERA FILM (Vilnius) co-production
Alexander Lukashenko describes himself as a man of the people, nicknamed bat’ka (father) by his fellow Belarusians. His critics call him the last dictator in Europe.
A former Soviet military officer and collective farm manager, Lukashenko first was elected president of this former Soviet republic of 10 million people in 1994. Since then he has expanded his powers, abolished presidential term limits and three times won re-election in hotly disputed landslides. He also has been accused of involvement in deaths and disappearances of opposition leaders dating back to the late 1990s. Elections are seen as fraudulent formalities, and the resulting demonstrations inevitably meet with brutal response. Still, bat’ka remains popular in Belarus, particularly among pensioners and villagers, and it’s unclear whether he would lose even a free and fair election. Many Belarusians see him as a strong leader who has maintained stability and an extensive social safety net in this landlocked nation bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Under the Hood delivers an accurate depiction of life inside this most opaque of European states. The film is constructed not through our voices or those of experts, but through the voices of the people themselves, ordinary Belarusians who talk simply to our lens and speak about their lives. Characters include people like poor communal farmers in tiny villages who support Lukashenko and who are contemptuous of the opposition movement. On the other extreme, we talk to Iryna, a veteran journalist whose reporting on the regime has caused her to be arrested, interrogated, beaten and kept under constant surveillance by the secret police. Other characters include exiles in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius who still find themselves drawn inexorably to their homeland, although they may be “under the hood” – a local expression meaning on the radar of the KGB: under surveillance, suspected, followed, threatened, intimidated.
It is astonishing how little is known in the West about this country on the eastern frontier of the European Union. Does the rest of Europe care about the fate of other Europeans, apparently still living under a regime of oppression and denied the most basic of human and civil rights? Do Belarusians themselves want to have their voices heard in Europe and further afield? As we did with our award-winning documentary Beyond the Wall, about everyday life in the Communist Bloc, we patiently yet with quiet insistence speak with our subjects inside and outside Belarus, gradually piecing together a true picture of life under Lukashenko. We start with the most mundane details of daily routine and work our way towards the realities of political and artistic expression, self-affirmation, and aspiration towards freedom, if indeed such aspiration exists.
Using a style of sobriety and dignity, with a core of carefully framed interviews accompanied by scenes of life in Belarus and news bulletins from national television, we construct a penetrating and compelling vision of life in this most mysterious of nations.
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