Ireland On Sunday presents Under the Hood, a revealing portrait of life in Belarus. Steven Galvin chatted to directors Mark Byrne and Rob Dennis about their film ahead of its screening this Sunday at the IFI as part of their monthly showcase for new Irish film.
Under The Hood is an intimate look inside Belarus, the “alienated zone” – a country we know little about; an autocratic regime built on a political system of state control. The film’s directors, Mark Byrne and Rob Dennis, are known for their previous documentary, Beyond the Wall (2010), which examined the communist era and its legacy, illustrating the endurance of the human spirit in the face of political dogma. Filmed in the Czech Republic, Germany and Poland, Beyond the Wall humanized life under Communism and the complex issues that still face the region. Under the Hood continues on in that vein. The film is constructed through the voices of the Belarusian people who speak about their lives, providing a fascinating insight into life in a country that has been called “the last true remaining dictatorship in the heart of Europe”.
‘We were interested in the Stasi and the KGB and the Cold War,’ Mark explains about the reasons behind the documantary being made. ‘So it seemed a very natural extension to go to Belarus where a post-Soviet State still exists. And what you find is a lot of parallels exist between what was happening 20/30 years ago in East Germany or wherever and what’s happening in Belarus.’
The film eschews historical narrative and “expert” talking-heads and instead lends a voice to the people of a country, who tell their own stories, establishing an accurate and discerning picture of what is going on. ‘I think people are always more interested in people’, Mark insists. ‘What we were especially interested in was to have a look behind the news story and get inside the country and meet the people, because from very early on we always believed that people are interested in people and we wanted to get in to the country and have them tell their story and let the news headlines fall to the background.’
The advantages of such an approach bear fruit in the film as rather than merely being a predictable outsider’s perspective of a country run by “Europe’s last dictator”, replete with tales of rigged elections and alleged human-rights abuses, we instead see a more personal communicative portrait of a country that is divided between its people – those who support President Alexander Lukashenko and those who do not.
Rob explains that ‘one of the things we found was that there is quite a lot of support for Lukashenko – because he’s brought stability, which, given the country’s history, is something that’s very attractive to a lot of people.There certainly is a divide there; older people who’ve lived through communism do crave stability. And there’s a lady in the film who says about Lukashenko that “he doesn’t increase wages; but he increases pension” – even if it is often a couple of months before an election! These people crave stability.’
This divide is not just generational but also geographical – there’s a rural/urban divide, with Lukashenko’s strongest support being in rural areas. As Mark points out, ‘this is a country where the wages are around $250 a month. Things that are very cheap there – vodka, cigarettes and diesel gives the illusion of stability to people living in the countryside – it’s a dubious form of stability…’
Rob explains that ‘there’s an attitude amongst the younger, more educated group that these people are being brainwashed. You’ve got State TV telling these people what to think and they’re swallowing it whole. And on the other side you have people saying, “Look these are Western-supported opposition guys – they don’t give a damn about me. There is a disconnect between these two groups and perhaps a lack of understanding of exactly why each believe what they do.’
Th flm’s title Under the Hood is a local expression meaning on the radar of the KGB: under surveillance, suspected, followed, threatened, intimidated. This constant fear in people’s lives leads to a heightened state of paranoia, something that comes across strongly in the film. As Rob says, ‘From the very moment you arrive in Belarus, you’re aware people are scared. People accept that they’re being watched. You hear the word paranoia several times a day – if you’re stopped at traffic lights people are aware of the car next to them. They talk about being paranoid.’
Mark admits that ‘It’s accumulative. Even me – on our last trip there during the elections there was a heavy police presence and you do start to feel a sense of whose watching; what’s that car doing; waiting for the knock at the door. It does get to you. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live with that day in day out.
He adds that ‘you’re constantly looking over your shoulder. But what worries me is that people have come to accept this. Citizens of Belarus accept that they cannot leave the house without their passport, which they must carry when they leave the house and they must be prepared for document check and even if you have your passport you can still be taken in because they might want to check your passport – and that can take a couple of hours. And this to a large extent has become accepted – certainly by many young people who may not have known any other way. They’re not fazed by the constant police involvement in the daily life in Belarus – even young people who would lean toward the opposition.’
Both directors talk about their fears for Belarus and that maybe this paranoia has led to a strong sense of self–censorship through fear. Both Mark and Rob fear that the revolution nearly happened in 2010 and got crushed and Belarus’ opportunity may have passed them.
2010 marked a high point of major anti-Lukashenko protests, when crowds gathered in Freedom Square in the run-up to the elections to protest against Lukashenko’s regime. Why that particular moment? ‘Sometimes the planets just align’, Mark believes. ‘When Lukashenko won the election by 79% and even though that was a more subtle landslide than previous elections, people were ready and moved quickly. According to Rob, ‘it was like this is our moment – we have tens of thousands in the square and a real sense of it’s happening now – but it didn’t and the following summer they came back again and tried to build the momentum again and again it was crushed. And that can only happen so many times before you lose faith.’
Perhaps one factor is that the difference between Belarus and East Germany or the former Soviet Union is that the people can leave, can travel – so, as you see in the documentary, some people just leave believing it’s just not worth it. Rob agrees: ‘The fear of being tossed in prison, the paranoia, the fact that the opposition is riddled with KGB, so they don’t know who to trust – the fact that they can go West and build a life for themselves… a lot have done that. And that’s watered down this movement. It’s hard to see it growing to that level again but then who knows – who would have known that the Berlin Wall would come down when it did.’
Mark breaks in: ‘I wouldn’t like you to think that there’s no will for it. The will is strong and the will is there. As stability wanes a certain amount of people are questioning whether Lukashenko’s the best thing for the country – there is a will to create a new life something along the European model. The lack of leadership, the lack of strong leaders is a strong factor. Small pockets of workers are striking – if that grows who knows how things will develop.
We go on to talk about the practicalities of making the documentary. Belarus is not a country where you can simply set up camera and film. As Mark explains, you’re not allowed use video cameras on the street. ‘Anything that looks like it’s media related or semi-professional is simply not allowed. So very early on we decided we would use any sort of camera we could get our hands on. It became apparent that we couldn’t gain access to the country as media people – we would be refused Visas, and once refused we couldn’t change our story and say we were tourists – so we decided from the start to say we were tourists and we grabbed a couple of domestic camcorders and headed out to Lithuania back in Aug 2011. We set ourselves up in Vilnius because it’s only 200k from Minsk and about 30 minutes from the Belarusian border. We got an agency to organise visas, which we got in August 2011. Loaded up the car and headed to Belarus – only to discover that it really was like entering an old Soviet Empire.
‘Our first queue was 4/5 hours to get across the border and there’d only be 4 or 5 cars in front of you! But you queue and you queue. You drive in – a lot of military, and a lot of paperwork and a lot of questions – they love a stamp –, being searched but we got in. When you get to Minsk, there’s no setting up a tripod or anything… you just can’t do it. So we were thinking are we going to end up doing our entire movie in people’s apartments and in the backs of cars. We were restricted – even when you go to the countryside you cannot arrive in a village and just take a camera out. Our Belarusian friends were particularly nervous in the countryside – the older generation in the countryside see people speaking English and think they’re spies and that they better call the local KGB office.
Mark recalls how they spent a week on their first trip to work out what the practicalities were. ‘We realised we couldn’t bring cameras and microphones across the border; we cannot use a tripod outside; we can’t linger anywhere; we can’t film near any national monument or government building. You don’t have to do a lot to get into trouble. And our problem was that we wanted to spend some time to get to know people, so were always concerned that if we were arrested once that would be the end of the film.
‘The way people ended up in the movie or not was whether we actually formed a relationship with them. Whether we liked them and they liked us – more importantly whether they liked us! There had to be a high level of trust between us. We were very lucky with the people we ended up with in the film.’
Under the Hood screens as part of Ireland on Sunday – the IFI’s monthly showcase for new Irish film.
The screening is at 13.00 on Sunday, 7th July 2013 and will be followed by a post-screening Q&A with Mark Dennis.
Tickets for Under the Hood are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie