The center of Bobr, a small village in Belarus, is empty. The camera pans over houses, close together and dark-windowed, the street before them dusty and still. The only signs of life are dogs, a motley group making its way to a fence, trotting, snapping, humping. When they reach the fence, all but one crawl beneath it and disappear. This last dog turns to the camera, panting.
At first this moment in Belarusian Waltz seems pretty regular, another introduction to a quirky place, a sequence that’s slightly cute, slightly condescending. But Andrzej Fidyk’s documentary, which airs 12 August as part of PBS’ POV collection, has something more specific in mind. The dogs — and later, cats — come to reinforce the idea that the local population is not only artless, but also afraid. This point is made repeatedly by Alexander Pushkin, painter and Bobr’s resident resistance fighter and the film’s star. “Everyone’s gone,” Pushkin says as he leads the camera along yet another deserted street in Bobr. “They all hid when they saw us. They’re afraid that they and their loved ones will be punished… If a person appears in a film, he’s persecuted.”
Why Pushkin is not punished remains one of the film’s great mysteries. It opens by laying out the seeming opposition between Pushkin and Belarus’ current president, Alexander Lukashenko, “the last dictator in Europe.” The population has repeatedly reelected his pro-Russian totalitarian regime (in contests the president “falsifies,” apparently needlessly). But, the movie asserts, citizens are fearful and “no one will talk about it.” No one, that is, except Pushkin, frustrated by his countrymen’s complacency and promising to “explain the nature of a Belarusian.”
This explanation is, unsurprisingly, quirky. He begins with what he sees as the state’s primary means of maintaining control, vodka. Over a handheld shot of two staggering old men, he muses, “Keeping people drunk is a national priority, so that we all stay drunk and dumb and don’t think about serious things happening before our eyes, the birth of a new totalitarian, neo-Stalinist, collective fascism.” Pushkin resists with his art, mostly performance pieces like “A Wheelbarrow of Dung for President Lukashenko,” delivered in 1999. These performances — photographed by reporters, applauded by a few onlookers — typically end with Pushkin, tall, lumpy, and vociferous, handcuffed and carted off by uniformed police.
What he wants to do, according to Pushkin, is remind his neighbors of their history, that Belarus did not begin just 60 years ago on “Victory Day,” the end of German occupation. In fact, he insists in his paintings and performances, Belarus has its own language and legacy, repressed by hundreds of years of Russian and Soviet occupation. He fights back as best he can: though Lukashenko banned the Belarusian flag and instituted “Muscovite symbols,” Pushkin insists on flying a red and white flag, the camera tracking him as he scrambles over his rooftop to replace a faded version with a new one.
Such images — along with Pushkin’s discussions with his father concerning Belarus’ “humble people,” or fight with his sister over filming a visit to their mother’s gravesite (“You could have come alone and not made a circus out of this. You needn’t have, your mother saw enough of your concerts and shows”) — make the artist look both awkward and self-serving. Even as he makes the argument against Lukashenko’s rule, the film reveals the messiness of his own life, much of the trouble framed by his voluble aversion to all things Russian.
The film illustrates this aversion in a difficult sequence concerning Pushkin’s ex-girlfriend Margarita. First, he sets up a visit on Margarita’s birthday, explaining their relationship (they had a brief affair in 1991, they have a 13-year-old daughter, Ania) as his wife Janka prepares dinner in the background. As Pushkin sees it, he’s done Margarita a great service by fathering Ania (calling himself a “vital, healthy stud”). Arriving at Margarita’s apartment with flowers and the film crew, Pushkin appears ready to play the hero, again (“She’ll think it’s some kind of performance,” he smiles, sure he’ll be welcome). But the scene inside the apartment is quite strange: Ania hangs back, plainly not thrilled to see her father (it’s unclear how often he sees her) and Margarita recalls the moment, during her pregnancy, when she discovered him cheating on her with another girl.
When Margarita suggests he still owes her an apology, he rejects the notion out of hand — based on the fact that she’s Russian. “You keep saying that you’re a principled woman here in our land,” he says, “But you’re an outsider here. This is not your land. You have your great Russia.” The film cuts back and forth between the two, their faces taut and exhausted, as if they’ve waged this battle before. “You like to make a performance,” says Margarita. “Your most successful was the one you did with me and your daughter… Why did you date me if you hated Russians so much? Your performance was a success. You destroyed a Russian woman.” The scene cuts to a family portrait, seated around the dinner table, all three faces uneasy, then to another of those metaphorical moments, a mother cat fiercely fighting off an inquisitive dog.
If the film is repeatedly unsubtle, it also offers occasional surprises. Throughout, Janka appears quietly supportive of her husband, who not only directs her on screen (sending her to fetch a document to illustrate a point he’s made), but also leaves her regularly in order to make his performances. During one such sojourn, Janka leads the film crew to a pretty hillside spot near their home (cheerfully warning them to beware a dead mouse: “Don’t step on it!”) for an interview. After briefly describing her marriage (“Ideologically, we’re a good match: he’s active, I’m not”), she condemns the “slave mentality” of Belarusians. “In general,” she says, “the nation is gone, only the masses remain.”
If Janka’s assessment of her neighbors echoes Pushkin’s, it is also ironic in the context provided by Belarusian Waltz. For all his very vocal interest in preserving Belarusian traditions and reinvigorating national pride, Pushkin is a decidedly complicated figure, at once energetic and committed, but also easily distracted, narcissistic, and frequently annoying. It’s hard to tell, however, whether he’s representative or anomalous — and that makes the film extremely clever or annoying as well, depending on your tolerance for ambiguity.