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Struggle over Identity

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Nelly Bekus

Part VI. Cultural Manifestation versus Social Reification

Chapter 24. The Belarusian National Film Misterium Occupation: Distancing themselves from Soviets and Russians

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  • 1 With the advent of perestroika Bykau actively supported the Belarusian national revival and had to (...)

1World War II occupies a central position in the Soviet conceptualization of Belarusianness. The war, or more precisely, its image and the way of thinking about it has also become a catalyst for general attitude to history. The Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau (1924–2003), whose novellas are translated into more than one hundred languages, often focused his writing on the war experience, concentrating on the human and moral aspects of war horrors. This led him to the conflict with the authorities in the pre-perestroika years. The image of the war where real people participated with their tears and problems, feelings and imperfections made an unfavorable background for ideologized Soviet clichés.1

2The film discussed in this chapter not only digresses from the accepted official image of the war with the human perspective of war experience; it presents a new war participant—Belarusians as a separate people. Misterium Occupation (2003, dir. Andrei Kudinenko)2 became a significant precedent of the cultural manifestation of alternative Belarusianness in the language of cinema. Both the content of the film—reinterpretation of World War II—and its public fortune in Belarus are representational for the alternative Belarusianness’ fate. Cinema is an effective factor of contemporary mythology, including the national one. Misterium Occupation was planned as a national myth by its creators, and to some extent their idea was realized: the film was talked about as the “first national film.” It is no accident that the main characters are not specific figures, but a kind of archetypes: the mother, the father, Adam, Eve.

3The film begins with a dialogue between two Belarusian polizists (Nazi collaborators). One of them admits that he wants to learn how to make films when the war is over. “What films? German ones? Maybe Soviet films?” his colleague asks. “No, ours. Belarusian films!” “But there is no Belarusian cinema. And never will be.” Misterium Occupation, in which this conversation takes place, is a response-manifestation to this remark: it is Belarusian national cinema, it does exist.

  • 3 The Belarusian state—the largest in Europe—refers to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. “Only few of th (...)

4A brief history of Belarus is presented in the film’s initial sequence. “Five hundred years ago they did not know they were Belarusians, but they had the largest state in Europe. By the time they realized it, Belarusians had no state and were considered either half-Russians or defective Poles. But they still existed. Finally, they got lumped in with the Soviet People. Then the war and the occupation came and after that there turned out to be only a few of them left. Now Belarusians do have a state but they have discovered that they no longer exist.”3

5This historical reference about the Belarusians’ fate sets up a context for the events taking place on screen. It should be noted that the picture of the military occupation shown in the film greatly deviates from the canons accepted during the Soviet time (and later in the official discourse of Belarusianness). For example, the film presents an unheroic image of partisans: they betray, falsify, rob peasants, and kill their mates. There is also a paradoxical patriotism of polizists. Yet, the main difference between the film and the accepted war doctrine is that Belarusians in the film have their own independent status, separate from the Soviets.

  • 4 Vakar, Belorussia, 195–96.

6There were two sides in the Soviet perspective of the war: the fascists and the Soviet people. However, histories of Belarus written outside the Soviet Union paradigm testify to a “third way.” Vakar referred to the memories of local people: “People of military age, deprived of the chance to live and work in peace felt lost and betrayed. They were anti-Stalinist, and wanted to join those who were fighting against him. They enrolled in the anti-guerilla units but, realizing that they had to fight for the Germans and against their own people, deserted and joined the anti-German guerillas. Because most guerillas did not fight for people either, our men would desert again. […] Thus many young people changed sides several times.”4

7Misterium Occupation shows Belarusians as an independent, though a suffering actor, along with the German invaders and Soviet partisans. The atrocities of German soldiers toward Belarusians were opposed by the violence of the “forest brothers” against local villagers. Both are portrayed as invaders, who conquered the Belarusians’ lands.

  • 5 Vakar, Belorussia, 173.

8The film starts with footage of occupied Belarus from the state cinema to graphic and photo archives. The pictures show people of western Belarus where the Soviet power, established in 1939, was seen by many as an “occupation.” Accordingly, the arrival of German troops was considered by them as “liberation.” This is the time when the fascists had not yet begun burning down Belarusian villages together with the inhabitants. “For the people who for a quarter of a century had suffered from the confusion and distraction of alternate moments of illusion and despair, the German–Soviet war was nothing but a continuation of the civil war. The new occupants were received just as so many others had been in the past. Not as Germans, but as human beings bringing a promise of change.”5

9The film consists of three parts, which become topically united at the end when the interrelation between the characters and events in which they participate becomes obvious. The first part, “Adam and Eve,” depicts the story of a partisan (Russian) who comes for a young man in order to take him to his detachment. It should be noted that there is a clear un obtrusive difference between nationalities in the film—Russian, Belarusian, Muslim (partisan commander Rustam). The difference becomes apparent in their speech—Belarusians speak either Belarusian or Russian with a strong Belarusian accent. Moreover, there is a scene in which the conflict between partisans takes place based on their cultural difference: after the commander Rustam, without hesitating, kills a Belarusian woman simply because she happened to be there, he himself is killed by his Belarusian companion, who disliked such aggression of an “alien” to “our woman.”

10Thus, instead of a homogeneous Soviet community, common for Soviet films, we see people different in their culture and mentality. The young Belarusian Adam and the seasoned partisan Sergey Nikolayevich set off through forests and fields. On their way to the detachment place they visit a former partisan, who had left the detachment without permission and settled down on a farm hidden in the forests with a Polish woman Eve. As a “test” Adam must shoot the former partisan for treason. On the way back Adam speaks about the dreams and plans he had had in his childhood, which were ruined with the change of power: “As a kid I thought I would go to America, earn money, come back, buy some land and get married. But then the Soviets came.” Finally, he becomes a traitor himself before reaching the destination of their trip by killing his commander.

11The second part is titled “Mother.” A child of a deaf-and-dumb Belarusian peasant woman plays in the forest and is run over by a German motorcycle. Having buried the child she nurses to health a wounded Ger man soldier. The Belarusian polizists find the German and decide to shoot him. In the forest, pursuing a German, one of the polizists meets a partisan—they are fellow-villagers and know each other from childhood, they had been friends once, but now they are on opposite sides in the war. “We are neighbors,” they tell each other, and one of them kills the other. The motif of former friends, neighbors, fellow-villagers, and now enemies is recurrent throughout the film. It shows Belarusians as a people between a rock and a hard place dying for the interests of others.

12The last part is titled “Father.” A village boy, whose mother lives with a polizist is pestered by other boys who call him “fascist.” He has no father and his mother makes him call her live-in partner “dad.” Secretly from his mother he meets with a partisan who pretends to be the boy’s father. With the help of the boy he wants to get into the house and execute the polizist. Partisans kill both the policeman and the boy’s mother and the fictitious father has to take the child with him.

13At the symbolic level, namely the deidentification of Belarusians with the Soviet people is one of the main events of the film. It shows Belarusian history on the whole, different from the Soviet canons. During the conversation between the two partisans the Belarusian tells his Russian companion-in-arms that he is partisan in the fourth generation, his grandfather had fought against the Moskovites. This historic projection illustrates the past of Belarusians, separate from and opposed to Russia’s history.

  • 6 M. Zhbankov, “Mif protiv mifa, ‘Anastasia Slutskaia’ i ‘Okkupatsia Misterii’: dva podkho dak natsi (...)

14As the film critic M. Zhbankov writes, “Misterium Occupation is a diagnosis of us and our relations, including those with our own history.”6 The film diagnoses a catastrophic lack of distance in relation to events and social systems that were primarily external for Belarus. Belarus as an independent unit was crushed by two totalitarian regimes having come together on Belarusian lands for the war, which became a fratricidal one for the Belarusian people. And if Germans left relatively shortly after they occupied the Belarusian lands, the Soviets stayed much longer and even in today’s in dependent Belarus the Sovietness keeps its position in Belarusians’ minds.

  • 7 The ban on the film was lifted in February 2010. The premiere of the film in Belarus took place on (...)

15The emergence of such a film as Misterium Occupation proves that “there is no more occupation of the Belarusian soul,” as the film critic Andrei Rasinski wrote in his review. The film signals a beginning of a new story created out of the Belarusian past, in which Belarusians exist. It also signals a beginning of a new era in the alternative Belarusianness actualization in the Belarusian cultural space. However, in the context of the Occupation’s fate in official Belarus this statement seems to be overly optimistic. The film was negatively received, the censorship banned it “for the distortion of the genuine truth about the partisan movement, insulting for the veterans, and bad for the young generation.” In Belarus the film was released on DVD in the “Another Cinema” series, and has remained in the “underground” of Belarusian culture. At the same time, the film was invited to many film festivals, where it was received as the “first Belarusian national cinema.” This strange paradox has a simple explanation: the manifestation of the alternative Belarusianness was not admitted into the official cultural space because of its too obvious conflict with the underlying ideas of the official Belarusianness. The public “fate” of the film is symptomatic: it demonstrates that the identity forming potential of the alternative Belarusianness has a chance to be realized only if the cultural space is open for its cultural manifestations and the state adopts the program of its symbolic reification.7

Notes

1 With the advent of perestroika Bykau actively supported the Belarusian national revival and had to emigrate during Lukashenka’s rule.

2 http://www.partisanfilm.narod.ru.

3 The Belarusian state—the largest in Europe—refers to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. “Only few of them left” refers to the genuine “conscious” Belarusians as opposed to the Soviet ones.

4 Vakar, Belorussia, 195–96.

5 Vakar, Belorussia, 173.

6 M. Zhbankov, “Mif protiv mifa, ‘Anastasia Slutskaia’ i ‘Okkupatsia Misterii’: dva podkho dak natsionalnoi idee w belorusskom kino,” Nashe Mnienie, Februrary 23, 2004, http://nmnby.org/articles/230204/myth.html.

7 The ban on the film was lifted in February 2010. The premiere of the film in Belarus took place on 15th of February 2010 in the Pioneer cinema in Minsk.

© Central European University Press, 2010

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