The arrest in Belarus of the director of Minsk’s Watch Docs festival of nonfiction cinema is a reminder of how much culture workers matter in authoritarian states and at times of information deficit.
On 5 April Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorskaya’s home was searched by security forces, phones and computers were confiscated, and she was arrested. The ostensible reason was that she had co-organised (with Natalia Trenina and Yulya Semenchenko, who were also arrested but since released) an exhibition called The Machine Is Breathing, I Am Not about Belarus health professionals at the time of Covid-19.
Following the arrests the online exhibition closed. On 8 April, a court fined Hatsura-Yavorskaya 700 Belarusian rubles for “protesting against police”. Another criminal case is now being prepared, accusing her of “raising money for protests”.
In 2019, Hatsura-Yavorskaya visited the Belfast film festival at the invitation of Irish writer Laurence McKeown. The result was an exchange of films between Belarus, Britain and Ireland. As chair of the Belfast film festival and its sister organisation Docs Ireland, I went to Hatsura-Yavorskaya’s Watch Docs festival, and wrote about it for the Guardian.
I was deeply impressed by how Tatsiana, a humanitarian activist and mother of four, steered her festival through the storm of KGB intervention, censorship and outright banning of films. Audiences were large and hungry for stories and perspectives outwith those of the state media.
We at the Belfast film festival and Docs Ireland call on the authorities in Belarus to release Hatsura-Yavorskaya. And we ask other documentary film festivals, film workers and humanitarians to do the same. Tag @BelfastFilmFes1 on Twitter and we will retweet to the relevant authorities.
Nonfiction cinema is our lingua franca. Those who speak it to governments should be defended.