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Long Knives Night

Reporting from a Rabbit Hutch

Long Knives Night & Reporting from a Rabbit Hutch
Cinema Purgatorio / Seminal
1999, 2002
1:37 flat
96 min. (56 + 40)
Street Date May 18, 2010

Directed by Victor Dashuk

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

We've all been lectured that we don't appreciate our freedoms here in America. Although we can find plenty of issues to gripe about, tabloid newspapers and TV opinion pundits demonstrate daily that our freedom of speech is alive and well. Docu films are thriving as well. The 21st century has seen an explosion of non-fiction filmmaking from every conceivable political angle. Political advocacy of all stripes can be made here without censorship or government pressure. If difficulties arise, the problem is not censorship, but getting your worthy message heard through the din of junk information.

When it comes to expressing our opinions, mainstream or radical, we don't know how good we have it here. Many European democracies set limits about what one can say about public policy, royalty and elected officials. In dozens of authoritarian and totalitarian dictatorships, state power has no patience for conflicting thought, let alone opinionated dissent. The public's job is to quietly obey all edicts from above. Citizens are careful about writing and speaking their opinions, let alone making movies to disseminate ideas to the public.

Victor Dashuk

Belarus, a state made independent with the breakup of the Soviet Union, underwent in 1996 what has been described as an anti-constitutional coup. The elected president Alexander Lukashenko forced through a referendum that stripped the parliament of its authority, shifting most governmental powers to the president's office. Almost overnight, Belarus returned to Soviet-style authoritarianism. President Lukashenko is considered one of the most ruthless dictators in the world, yet most Americans are entirely unaware of him.

This is what makes the political films of Victor (Viktor) Dashuk so valuable. At no mean risk to himself and his family, Dashuk has been documenting conditions in Belarus since the middle 90s. Cinema Purgatorio is releasing a disc of two of Dashuk's Outlaw Protest movies, Long Knives Night and Reporting from a Rabbit Hutch. The first is a ragged piece about Alexander Lukashenko's coup. The second is a later color short subject detailing conditions under the dictatorship. The videos are, I imagine, designed to be duplicated and shown privately in Belarus; Victor Dashuk and his movies make the rounds of foreign film festivals, not so much in pursuit of prizes as to raise awareness of political conditions in his country.

So what we're seeing is guerrilla resistance in filmmaking form. Unless you happen to side with the dictator, Dashuk isn't a radical filmmaker but a moderate trying to expose a dictator's crimes. Even the United States considers Lukashenko to be "Europe's Last Dictator" and dismisses the dubious election landslides that keep sweeping him back into office. Dashuk's films aren't polished. Viewers must trust that all of his interviewees are telling the truth. But what's on screen is evidence enough to convince that a gang of thugs is running Belarus. And not even very clever thugs.

The two films are considered parts two and three of a Dashuk trilogy. Plain-clothes agents of the Presidential Security Service reportedly confiscated Dashuk's video master of Long Knives Night, so the relatively poor quality of the film may be due to being duplicated from a pirate copy.

Dashuk's 'artistic' choices sometimes seem unconstructive. Long Knives Night commences with a very difficult. A docu camera covers an outdoor Satanist gathering that involves the sacrifice of a dog, heard yelping mostly off-camera. The attendees interviewed express the positive (or negative?) sense of excitement and power they derive from the rite. Although the intended point seems to be that Dashuk is equating the Satanists with Lukashenko's regime, most viewers, I should think, will be made less receptive to director Dashuk's real political agenda. With video derived from various sources, including what looks like official state films videotaped from a monitor, a very patchy subjective account is offered of Alexander Lukashenko's usurpation of political power. Unhappy relatives talk about political opponents who have died in mysterious accidents or just disappeared.

Alexander Lukashenko

Just when we're wondering if Long Knives Night will be all talk Dashuk gets into his "A" material. Finding themselves locked out of their offices, legislators argue in the hallways with so-called Security Officials that refuse to identify themselves. These smiling goons insist without explanation that the gentlemen can do nothing, cannot appeal and must leave the building. Even though the Eastern Europeans really know how to press a belligerent argument, nothing works. The (presumably) Presidential thugs hold their ground with the not-so-subtle threat of force behind their orders. The action takes place in a crowded hallway, and Dashuk captures it all onscreen.

The movie ends with more footage of slaughter, this time of wild animals being shot from helicopters, Sarah Palin style. An irradiated region known as the "exclusion zone" exists in a corner of Belarus adjacent to the Chernobyl disaster site across the border in the Ukraine. Dashuk means for the deer and wolves blasted from the sky to symbolize the fate of freedom in Belarus. I'd think that most viewers would see these scenes as simply an unaccountable change of subject.

Victor Dashuk considers himself a documentarian, not a revolutionary. An opposition firebrand intent on using film to start a revolt would simply fake scenes of citizens being shot from helicopters. Dashuk has more of a commitment to the truth.

For Reporting from a Rabbit Hutch Victor Dashuk restricts his artistic touches to the title, a personal reference to being "free", but in a cage. When Dashuk was a kid he was locked in a rabbit hutch as a punishment. This shorter color video appears in a much better looking transfer. It's composed mostly of interviews with Belarusian exiles. Widows of politicians and vocal dissidents describe suspicious disappearances and auto accidents. Intercut with this material are scenes of President Lukashenko at official appearances, walking at the head of parades, accepting bouquets from children and toasts from cronies associates. Lukashenko doesn't act particularly paranoid but does display a subdued sense of tension. It's easy to imagine that he's looking about to see if his orders have been carried out, or for any sign that an assassination coup is in progress.

Cinema Purgatorio and Seminal's DVD of Long Knives Night and Reporting from a Rabbit Hutch has been reviewed from a burned disc that probably reflects final quality. Knives is only-copy-available quality and Rabbit Hutch plays much better. Both have non-removable English titles. As the films' value is their political content, these considerations are secondary. No extras were on the disc given me; if final packaging contains more content I haven't seen it.

Victor Dashuk has been making films since at least 1980, when his Parting expressed the public outpouring of grief at the funeral of the beloved Belarusian president during Soviet days, Pyotr Masherov. We're told that the Lukashenko government, bolstering the cult of the new dictator, has banned that film as well.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Long Knives Night & Reporting from a Rabbit Hutch rates:
Movies: Good
Video: Fair --, Fair ++
Sound: Good -
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 5, 2010

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson

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