blogEast is a new initiative of goEast - Festival of Central- and Eastern European Film. We hereby declare our solidarity with our colleagues and friends from Central- and Eastern Europe, who see themselves confronted with large challenges because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Within the following weeks blog entries will be published here, looking at the situation from a cinematic, political and/or social point of view. blogEast is supervised and edited by the goEast team and is part of the program Pan-Europan Picknick, supported by the Kulturfonds Frankfurt Rhein Main.
Being a journalist by occupation and having experience working in Belarus I know too well how media sometimes can misuse information in order to threaten people, make them obey, frighten them, raise public paranoia of something and so on.
When one of our partners at the independent Northern Lights Nordic Baltic Film Festival in Belarus that I've been running for six years called me while I was in Prague attending the East Doc Platform and asked me whether I was planning to cancel or postpone the festival -- I was outraged.
"No, of course I am not going to postpone anything, unless there is an official statement made by the Belarusian state!" I replied fully convinced. It was March 10. My partners based in Scandinavian and Baltic countries and working in state institutions already knew something that we had not yet got to know. In the upcoming days Denmark closed its borders. And then it was like a domino effect: every country was locking down one by one. I double-checked the info -- world media also tends to exaggerate facts, this is just the way media works. The situation was more than serious.
I remember a funny fact from school. Most of the art movements reached Belarus with some delay, sometimes a decade, sometimes a century or even several centuries. Like the heyday of Belarusian baroque that happened basically a century later than in the rest of the world. The same happened with the COVID-19 pandemic. Not a century of delay -- but still. I think the reason is that the head of the country believes Belarus is surrounded by enemies and there is no one to be trusted. Soviet-style paranoia. I wait a couple of weeks and my father, who is watching a lot of Russian TV is telling me that the corona virus is a biological weapon designed by Trump. "We have been fed with this for already a month, and your father is telling you this only now?" My Belarusian friends are surprised. "Your father is a tough cookie," they joke. Well, it all depends on the informational area we live in.
I returned from Prague to Tallinn, where I am based now, canceled my trip to Minsk and self-isolated. My friends and parents in Belarus did not understand what was going on. They could not believe that the world can be under lockdown. As in, the world is not a school that you can close for quarantine for two weeks because of a local flu epidemic (as a schoolchild I loved these lockdowns by the way! It meant we were not supposed to study and could sleep late. And on top of everything, we could go sledging, secretly from mom, of course, when she was at work).
I had been in self-isolation for already two weeks in Tallinn, instructing my parents via Skype to stay home and how to protect themselves. Also, reading funny rumors from Belarusian friends on Facebook. It was not funny anymore when suddenly the Lithuanian president said that he did not trust the official information provided by the Belarusian state. Or when I was checking the statistics and every country on quarantine still had increasing numbers of people infected. But Belarus was surprisingly stable. This just did not look realistic. I started to doubt whether they test people at all. I talked to a friend who is a doctor in my hometown Vitsebsk. She said that nobody knew anything and all is vague: no instructions, no cure, the state is not responsive and concealing facts. My Facebook feed was full of panic, my Belarusian friends were comparing the whole situation to Chernobyl -- back then the state was also withholding information. Really not funny anymore.
However, at times it still was. Humor will save us. Even my international classmates at the Baltic Film and Media School were asking me as a joke whether I was following the health recommendations of Lukashenka: tractor, sauna and refrigerator... His words became internationally acclaimed anti-COVID-19 nonsense. We have something to be proud of, hooray!
My claim that I was going to wait for an official comment by the Belarusian state before I decided to postpone the festival did not make any sense anymore. There would be no official statement... I announced the postponement till autumn one week after I returned from Prague. All international guests were under a lockdown, and again I was expecting a domino effect. Even if Belarus does not close borders, every other country will. No way can we have our festival April 23-30 as previously planned... Painful. I hope we will be able to announce new dates by the end of April. I really, really hope for the situation to get better soon and specialists will find a vaccine.
Some Estonian filmmakers asked me whether it's true that Lukashenka is not scared of the coronavirus. For me it's always weird to answer this kind of questions. Is Lukashenka really as crazy as they say in the media? Well, I am not his secretary or anything. But from what I see in the news and how the state institutions respond in Belarus -- it is actually kind of insane. How can the government be so ignorant of its own people? No solidarity, no compassion, no appreciation for its own people's lives. The Belarusian state is built upon the principles of abuse and total control, it's toxic from the inside. It's like the situation for many victims of domestic violence -- my metaphor is that the whole country of Belarus is victim to emotional and psychological domestic abuse by its president. The mechanisms are all the same: gaslighting, frightening, blackmailing, hiding facts and so on.
"No viruses flying around"...
What can you do?
The online flash mob #прашчальнаесловапрэзидзента (#farewellwordsofthepresident) came about as a reaction to offensive and utterly disrespectful words of Lukashenka about those Belarusians who died from the coronavirus. On social media people started to post statements that the president supposedly could say in case they die from corona: very self-ironic comments to cheer each other up and ridicule it... What can we do? When we talk about politics my mother usually says: "So what, we talked about it in the kitchen, but can we really change anything?" According to her, it's a rhetorical question.
I must also mention that women make up 85.6% of health care workers in Belarus. And they are the ones who are very much at risk now. Not protected, not heard, and even being inquired and investigated for openly sharing their insights. Like this female doctor from Vitsebsk.
I've not told about the creative industries struggling to survive the crisis. This would require another long column.
In Vitsebsk, my father was called by a friend today who told him he was tested positive for COVID-19. The friend was sick for a week, coughing and having a fever, and only after a week he found the courage to call the ambulance. He spent one week in hospital, only after this week did they test him, several days later they received the results. The friend called my father to warn him and suggested that my father should get a test too. Luckily, it has been already three weeks since my father saw his friend and my father has no symptoms. Relief. But it's like walking on thin ice...
In Belarus, no one governs people with love and care, no one is saying compassionate words like the prime minister of Canada did, or the head of Netherlands, there is no one who can say anything uplifting and affectionate. People are left to themselves, to survive in the jungle of this delayed reality. Let's be kind to each other in this quest for survival.
Here are some examples of people's solidarity in Belarus, which I am proud of!
How to help doctors in Belarus: CLICK HERE
Belarusian activist who's spreading information about COVID-19 and takes action: CLICK HERE
Volia Chajkouskaya graduated from the Institute of Journalist at Belarusian State Institute in 2010 and was master student in directing documentary film at the Baltic Film and media school, at the Tallinn University. She is Member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists and the Independent Union of Belarusian Writers. As well she is producer, founder and director of Northern Lights Nordic Baltic Film Festival in Belarus and Member of the European Film Academy.