There's a common piece of advice in the entertainment industry, that is usually shared amongst the most prolific of storytelling elites. This simple token of wisdom is to open your film with a hook: a scene, fragment, or even shot that encapsulates the emotional and thematic crux of your film in one small fleeting moment. With Aliaksei Paluyan's Courage, the Belarus filmmaker commences his film with one of the greatest opening sequences in recent memory. With a haunting piano & vocal track overlaid on top of protest footage from archival 90s camcorder footage — the end result of Paluyan's opening scene is nothing short of breathtaking. It establishes not only the central conflict of the film, but also the key thematics. In the montage, there's even a few eerie parallels to some other recently documented footage of police brutality featured later on within Courage, that further mirrors the “nothing has changed” narrative.
The montage then transitions to what Courage is predominantly highlighting and voicing towards; political activism within Belarus and the courageous people who are constantly fighting against a tyrannical dictatorship. The film takes centre stage with a few of the members of the Belarus Free Theatre — where Paluyan highlights a select few testimonies of the actors and production staff, where they discuss the internal struggles of living within an oppressed regime. Ironically enough however, the film's weakest link is its focus on the political subtext and interplay within the theatre's productions. With only a few scenes dedicated to the actual production of these activist-correlated plays, it begs the question if this film even necessarily benefited from the inclusion of this subplot to begin with. Where only the film's final harrowing scene actually added a level of emotional catharsis that is interlinked with the rest of the film — the scenes that are separated from the theatre bits feel completely distant in tone. In many ways, Courage proves that even within an intriguing subject at the core, cutting the most desirable of testimonies and footage can ultimately provide greater impact.
But whenever the film distinctly highlights the politics and testimonies behind the Belarus dictatorship, Courage quickly shifts gears towards a more focused and refined film. Even with the occasional structural repetition of a select few protest sequences, there is still a great amount of potency and purpose behind these editorial choices. This aforementioned choice for example, actually enhances the theme that “nothing has changed” within the Belarus political sphere, rather than becoming something that could have easily been labeled as lazy or even distracting. The constant redundancy further supplements the anger of the Belarusian civilians. As the frame is flooded with images of elevation and power roles, Paluyan dares to question these sources of authority with clever visual storytelling.
Perhaps that's exactly what any solid political film truly needs. Where Courage occasionally falters in some murky territory, such as the needless limelight on the Belarus Free Theatre and its lineup of theatre productions that could have easily been summed up in a few minutes — there is still a great amount of emotional catharsis to be had within the film's recount of national civilian protest. At the end of the day, it is thanks too committed filmmakers such as Aliaksei Paluyan that will eventually bring more international attention to these forms of social issues. Filmmaking is the greatest weapon of all; a peaceful tool of protest that stings at the core of any beating heart.
Courage premiered in the Artscapes program as part of this year's Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. The film is currently seeking international distribution.