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Film Review: Handbook (Handbuch)
by Marinell Haegelin

Pavel Mozhar, Germany | Belarus 2021

The homey, tidy room in Berlin-Neukoelln is where Pavel watched drama unfolding in his home country of Belarus on August 9, 2020, following the presidential election. When Alexander Lukaschenko was announced the winner protests raged across the country from the 9th to 11th. OMON (National Guard of Russia’s special police [SP] system) reacted with vicious force and degradation. Approximately 7,000 citizens, some merely passers-by, were swept up; hundreds of victims later described their traumatization.

Now, without Pavel's personal effects we see an empty, impersonal space. A man is fitted in a black balaclava as first-person voiceovers explain throughout: about the police transporter arriving and being beaten with a baton. As the camera pulls out it’s clear he’s obviously SP uniformed all in black including baton and boots. Two men and a woman are brought into the space; the four demonstrate what's being narrated. The transporter is shown in schematic form; forbidden to sit or stand, people were stacked—on top the person got the baton, on bottom they fought for breath, and were tear-gassed during transport. Arriving, more baton beatings; then one by one they were driven crouching with hands behind their heads while being yelled at into the building. More beatings, stripped/searched, questions and accusations, being filmed; the Secret Service repeated the process. “Then two and a half days of sheer hell began.”

Writer-director Mozhar’s 26-minute documentary reenacts the atrocities imposed on fellow citizenry; the room size equalizes where 30 activists were held. The sterile space neutralizes the physical brutality; the clinically orchestrated simulated movements depicting detainees’ testimonial accounts and experiences are riveting. We’re only allowed to imagine — that’s shocking enough. Repeated statements acknowledge the political corruption and moral bankruptcy: a handbook for torture, terror. The regime’s coup de grâce was charging each detainee 81 rubles for bed and board.