Jacob Mendez
Jacob Mendez

“Under a gray sky”: I don't want to make any compromises with the regime

Tamkovich worked for almost a decade as a journalist for independent Belarusian media broadcasting from Poland, where she reported on the growing authoritarianism in Belarus. Having premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival founded by Robert de Niro (in the International Narrative Competition section) “Under Gray Skies” is the voice of someone who has experienced the operation of this regime and wants to explain its mechanisms to the world. It is a sincere, personal, honest film filled with a sense of mission that Polish filmmakers describing the Polish People's Republic had in the 1970s and 1980s.

The film is inspired by the true story of Belarusian journalists – Igor Ilyash and Katsyaryna Andreyeva, who were arrested in November 2020 and sentenced to 8 years in a penal colony. In “Live”, Tamkovich showed how Andrejewa and Daria Chultsova streamed (this is also how “Under the Gray Sky” begins) the brutal pacification of the Belarusian opposition from their apartment window. The director's husband works at Belsat TV and was responsible for organizing the broadcast during which the journalists were detained by OMON. What exactly were they detained for? For organizing riots and disrupting… public transport. Disrupting public transport with a camera from an apartment block window? Grotesque, but unfortunately with no longer grotesque consequences.

Tamkovich shows the fight against Lukashenko's regime from the perspective of the steadfast journalist Lena (Aliaksandra Vaitsekhovich), who does not want to make any compromises with the regime, forcing her to self-criticize and sign a loyalty agreement. The price would be emigration, not imprisonment. Lena believes in her journalistic mission and still hopes that the elation that Belarusians felt during the protests in 2020-21 was not suppressed by the tightening regime. Tamkovich has no doubt that it was then that Belarus turned from an authoritarian state into a totalitarian state, where protests against the authorities are punishable by long sentences and, at best, mass emigration. Lena is a symbol of resistance, but at the same time the director does not make her a bronze figure.

The greatest strength of “Under a Gray Sky” is precisely the grayness in the characters' behavior. At some point, Lena and her husband Ilia (Valentin Novopolskij) understand that they may not win against the system. Lena hears that the charges against her will be changed to treason, which completely changes the perspective of her imprisonment. Her lawyer directly admits that he is afraid to defend her because “he also has children and a family” and leaves in his Mercedes to sign a pact with the devil with the face of a “baćka”, also called the Pührer (potato führer). Increasingly terrified of the regime's actions, Ilia persuades Lena to plead guilty and thus avoid a penal colony. The slow tightening of the noose around the family's neck, the harassment of Ilia himself by the militia, the increasingly widespread doubt about the sense of the fight, all culminate in two great scenes that show the director's talent, but also Tamkovich's reporter's eye.

We meet Lena as an attractive and self-confident blonde who could easily work on Western news television. Prison changes her almost beyond recognition. When Ilia gets permission to meet his wife at the apartment and bring her food, we see a woman with downright camp habits. Starving and battered, she greedily eats grapes and cheese, which were probably an appetizer for her evening glass of wine. The degradation that Lukashesk inflicts on its citizens (he was compared to Nicolae Ceausescu on posters during the protests) is very down-to-earth, which is what makes the grayness of this regime so overwhelming.

The most moving scene, however, is when Lena is unable to read in front of the camera the declaration that gives her freedom beyond the borders of her homeland. She tries, but her voice gets stuck in her throat, because what kind of freedom is this? “Once again!” repeats the increasingly irritated security officer. Lena is not like a Mercedes lawyer who goes to a deal with a “baćka” for the sake of material benefits. It is not like those for whom it is just “signing a piece of paper”. A pact with the devil, even on paper, is a sell-out of what is most important. She knows it.

In this one scene, Tamkovich elevates the film beyond the regional image of the struggle against dictatorship, making “Under a Gray Sky” a more universal film. Not only in the context of showing that there are still journalists in the world who fight for freedom of speech and remind us what the essence of this profession is in decline in the rich and fat West. Lena fights for her own soul. He fights for freedom of conscience, which ultimately defines who we are. Would her husband be so heroic? This heroism comes from her femininity, which has its specific and specific place in Eastern culture. Russian mir without matriarchy has no specificity. Is it the woman who has the strength to break this peace? Adrejewa is serving an 8-year sentence in a penal colony. Daria Czulcowa served the entire two-year sentence. Both are the faces of the opposition to the Belarusian dictatorship and have become symbols of struggle for Belarusians who want freedom. Tamkovich makes us realize what the personal price of this heroism is and makes us ask ourselves: could we do it too? This is an extremely important question at a time when Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian mutt are so close to our borders.


“Under Gray Skies”, dir. Mary Tamkovich, Poland 2024, world premiere: Tribeca Film Festival. Watch the movie trailer!