Experimental Reviews

For the Women of Belarus (2021) – 3 stars

Director: Anandha Ray

Writer: Anandha Ray

Cast: Four Anonymous Belarusian Dancers, Lorralei Burton, Sofia Farrah, Fabi Santiago, Tatsiana R. Sparre, Marintya Vázquez.

Running time: 10mins

There are a great many virtues of experimental cinema – but the one which is most often extolled by Indy Film Library is the genre’s ability to prompt critical thought. The deconstructed and amorphous forms experimental films can take can free a mind from the trappings of traditional storytelling cinema – and the ideological baggage that come attached to many narrative norms – to take a broader, more introspective look at the institutional and social constructs which govern our everyday lives.

With that being said, while experimental filmmaking is well-suited to provoking bigger-picture analysis, it is arguably less equipped to tackling the minutiae of more precise matters. As exemplified by For the Women of Belarus,one of the chief limitations of experimental cinema is that it is extremely difficult to use it to make a specific intervention on a topical issue – especially while making said intervention in the form of interpretive dance.

Director Anandha Ray’s short film sees an ensemble of dancers – four of whom we are told are from Belarus, and are unnamed to protect them from state repression – glide and weave their way about the screen, performing remote duets with each other over Skype. In its own right, this is a remarkable spectacle – a collaboration between strangers, hundreds of miles apart, uniting in one of the most sacred and primal forms of expression known to humanity.

Credit where it is due, the dancers are mesmerising, creating an ethereal collective which see the 10-minute run-time vanish in what seems like seconds. Having celebrated their performances, it would be wrong of me to fail to praise Ray’s ability to assemble this cast, against all the odds, and to have worked with them to create such a timeless environment for them to create and collaborate. Having skimmed her website, it is clear that Ray [The Reverend, Colonel Anandha Ray, MA, MA, DTR to give the artist her full title] is in her element in this regard. Having dedicated “over 40 years to the full-time passion of dance”, including “an award-winning 30-year career in professional modern dance,” what she doesn’t know about the medium is probably not worth knowing.

The problem with her film does not come from a lack of artistic ability then. Instead, the shortcomings of For the Women of Belarus seem to come from a mild overestimation of the audience. The rest of us do not have 40 years of dance education to help us glean meaning from the movements on the screen, beyond a vague, universal emotional response. Certainly, we might be moved to sadness or awe by what we see, but to what end? If the goal here was to provide solidarity to the women’s movement of Belarus, the bulk of the film does little to nudge us towards that.

The opening of the piece warns us of some brutal images to come, while stating the participants from Belarus will remain faceless for their own safety. Following some relatively tepid news footage (horrible things are indeed happening to opposition figures in Belarus, but none really appear here – and if you have ever been to a protest anywhere in the world, you have probably seen worse brutality first-hand), we are none the wiser as to what the women of Belarus are looking to achieve, or what they are up against.

Toward the end of the film, a text crawl attempts to clarify this a little, but does not manage to do much more than deliver us fairly uncontroversial platitudes. The women want democracy, and a symbol of their resistance has been them assembling holding flowers across Belarus. Unfortunately, this does not do as much as it might to clue us in to the broader picture; how Belarus got here, how it might overcome the current chaos, or who stands to benefit from change and how.

Often referred to as “the last dictatorship in Europe,” Belarus has been governed by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994. While the autocratic government has arrested, tortured and disappeared thousands of people it feels pose a threat to its interests, it continues to host clearly rigged elections to consolidate its stranglehold on power in Belarus. Known as the Women in White, a force of female opposition has continued to brave state crackdowns since the last such election in 2020, and continue to fight for fair elections.

At the same time, it is also worth noting that while US and UK media outlets might be comfortable noting the influence of the Women in White, as a relatively peaceful symbolic movement, Belarus’ opposition have also mobilised protest marches, road blockades, civil disobedience, riots and a general strike in their desperate fight for a meaningful democratic process. Now there’s a thought…

But I digress. All the context I can offer comes from internet searches – and it is a shame that there is not more insight offered from the film, having had first-hand experience of the goings on. Even though the Women in White were briefly a top news item in the summer of last year, the story was quickly buried beneath the buffoonery surrounding the West’s mishandling of its second wave of Covid-19. As such, most of us still have little knowledge of Belarusian history, its current political moment, or how the struggle is going now.

Perhaps the worst thing about this is that For the Women of Belarus offers its audience no way to take action in support of the cause. For all its best intentions, to offer a film “as a prayer in support” will probably not have much material impact on the situation. It will not help fund workers during a strike. It will not provide resources for activists to fight court cases. It will not shield women from the horrific violence inflicted upon them by Belarus’ state apparatus. Even on the basis of simply getting foreign viewers to encourage their national governments to heap pressure on the Lukashenko government, there are no suggestions for how viewers might do this.

For all the beauty of the art on display, and for all the potent symbolism of an international collection of women uniting for this film, then, Ray has not found a way to galvanise the materials at her disposal to help mobilise people for change. Without something more to rouse viewers into action, there is not much of a point to showing us any of this.

On a technical level, this is a fine experimental dance film. Beyond that, the wheels fall off, and people watching this for its political element will likely leave disappointed. An accompanying documentary explaining how Ray found her Belarusian dancers and convinced them to participate would probably be an amazing opportunity to elaborate on many of the sparser aspects of the message – as well as why Ray thinks dance is a relevant way to get such a message across – and if there is potential for such a film to be made, it would likely greatly enhance this film if the two pieces were shown back-to-back.

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