Culture, Travel & Sport

Belarus sets sights on Oscars with prison documentary

At next year’s Academy Awards, Belarus will be represented by Debut, a 2017 documentary about a women’s penitentiary directed by Anastasiya Miroshnichenko.

The movie has been submitted for consideration in the category of Best International Feature Film for the 2020 Oscars Gala.

Debut was chosen over two other Belarusian movies, Inside One’s Self and Kadish, and tells the story of 11 women serving their term in a female prison.

Focusing on the uneasy life of women prisoners, the story focuses on the “soulless atmosphere” within the facility, how serving a sentence in prison changes their personality and what the rationality of a prison term looks like for mothers separated from their children.

Out of the 1,500 women detained as first-time offenders in the penitentiary, 11 decide to volunteer to take part in a play. Some see it is a short break from the pressure of a life spent behind bars, while others regard it as therapy on how to handle being imprisoned and as a way to slowly return to society.

For the 11 women, the rehearsals eventually mean freedom inside the prison, a way to distance their attention from the fact that they have committed a crime, allowing them to talk to each other as wives, mothers or daughters about how terribly they miss their families and suffer from their guilt.

“The director uses various techniques to present these women as three-dimensional characters: close-up interviews about their fears, beautifully framed shots of the daily collective routines of jail life, images from surveillance cameras that emphasise how their lives are controlled, and of course their debut on the professional stage. By then, you almost feel as if you’ve landed in a feel-good movie with a happy ending, but the director doesn’t let it get that far,” wrote the jury of the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, praising the movie prior to its premiere in November 2017.

Ms Miroshnichenko’s success follows Perekrestok (Crossroads), her first documentary from 2014 about a homeless artist who has made paintings in the streets of Gomel in Belarus for more than 20 years. The latter movie was made with the aim of supporting the actual artist and his work.

Over the past year and a half, the two movies have been screened at a number of international film festivals, including the Amsterdam Festival and the Warsaw International Film Festival where Crossroads was handed the audience award.

Debut will be the fourth Belarusian entry in the Academy Awards after the country became independent in 1991. The country has not yet secured a nomination, however.

The 92nd Oscars are scheduled for February 9, 2020.