I learned a lot of things I did not know in Madeleine Sackler’s astonishing documentary “Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus,” which HBO Documentary Films scooped up before its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. (HBO will air the film in 2014.) The weird title starts to make sense when you see the movie, which chronicles the many hurdles placed in front of an underground theater troupe, the Belarus Free Theatre, which insists on performing despite being barred from working for pay within the last surviving Communist dictatorship in Eastern Europe.
Not only is it moving to watch these artists express their rage and frustration and tell the stories of their lives, but their urgency and compulsion to perform against all odds feeds their art. It’s damned compelling. British playwright Tom Stoppard saw the troupe in Minsk and said: “I wish all my plays would be performed by a theatre like this.”
Luckily they have built a following and support across the globe performing outside their country. But director Madeleine Sackler and executive producer Andrea Meditch figured out how to shoot inside Belarus as well, starting in 2010 by hiring a local camerawoman to go where they could not risk going. They communicated via Skype.
We see how the group reaches out to the community and stages their shows, under the radar. They play to packed to houses. You can see the hunger in the audience for their angry, authentic uncensored theater.
As the KGB targets Free Theatre founders Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada, they flee the country and take up residence inLondon–but still communicate with their troupe via Skype, as the filmmakers did.
Anne Thompson: How did you find out about this story?
Madeleine Sackler: I was finishing up my first film in New York and read about them. They were going through New York and I had heard about some of their work in Belarus. A friend in theater knew them, and I asked for an introduction. I ran up to meet them six months before we started filming in 2010 after which they fled to New York. We picked the story from there. Part of what drew me to the story was the reality they were living in. For them the simplest act to get on stage and tell stories about their lives was dangerous. They told me they were raided by the KGB multiple times, and many of their friends have disappeared.
How did you shoot the footage in Belarus? It must have been dangerous.
Our first concern was their safety, who should go over. They had had Americans come to visit who were turned around at the border. The safest way was to find someone with state accreditation in Belarus to work with over Skype, and not raise the red flag that we were shooting a movie. We found a resilient young woman with an HD camera who we worked with over Skype. She was amazing, she could open up her computer with Skype turned on and walk it around different locations, so we could see what we were shooting in advance, and be specific about what to capture. She would drive the hard drive across the border to Lithuania and Russia, and mail them from there. She kept many copies under beds, stored in friends attics etc. They are very censored and we didn’t want it seized.
Andrea Meditch: She’s in the tradition of more news shooting. Madeleine as she was directing her was able to direct this young shooter for documentaries in a cross-border collaboration that was not possible a few years ago.
MS: On the first hard drive we saw news footage, with a frenetic turn on and off as she got short shots of one thing after another. It was unusable to cut a verite-based scene. I had a heart attack when I opened the first hard drive. But I jumped on Skype with translaters and said, “we need an establishing shot, when there’s two people it’s helpful to have an over the shoulder shot and the reverse angle.”
We credited her in the film, had conversations with everyone who participated, because we don’t want anyone to get in trouble. She was not willing to shoot at the protests, that footage comes from a group of different filmmakers and citizen journalists; we collected their raw footage, and were able to bring those scenes to life.
AM: We had 450 hours raw footage in Russian. One of the interesting things is that the citizen journalist becomes a character, we don’t see them but we see their POV, we see what happens to them as the witness becomes engaged. That allows the rest of us to see what is happening in intimate ways.
How did you find these people?
MS: One of cameramen at the protest got beat up, their face was bleeding and the camera was broken. It’s a pretty tight community. It was a combination of two or three people we talked to in advance who saw othe people filming and asked for friends’ and friends of friends’ footage.
Not only is the troupe’s story riveting but their work is as well.
MS: For me there were two reasons I was intersted in making the film. I was so shocked by their story. I didn’t know this was happening in the middle of Europe. From an artistic point of view we were mixing two art forms, autobiographical and biographical, by bringing to the stage real stories of things that we happening on the street. I saw an opportunity to intercut with live footage and to try and create a sense of heightened reality. You often feel that these situations are distant, but this is the amazing value of art, it can make it feel present, like their stories are your stories. That was the artistic challenge upfront: can you bring together and combine theatrical renditions of stories with film?
AM: When we first met two years ago we were struck by the power of their performance, the passion and intimacy about their lives and their families’ lives. That passion and intimacy comes through. It makes what was specific universal, weaving performance footage and personal stories is what gives the film its power.
MS: We first met in June 2010 and after the crackdown on January 1 they fled to NYC where I’m based, so I was able start filming the day-to-day realities of that escape. They’ve dropped everything and left the country, and did not know if they could go back. So the story we set out to film changed. As we see in the film their fate may be to never be able to go home. We had two crews filming simultaneously with the logistics of international scheduling.
AM: This gives you front row seat to this emerging change, what happens to people in these kinds of revolutions when they try to make a change unfolding in real time.
How is the theater troupe doing now?
MS: It continues theater to be raided, some of them can’t go home, some of the hazards we can’t even include, things that are happening to kids and family members over there. We wanted in the filmmaking process to keep everybody safe.
AM: As you see in film, the presidential candidate is in London, and it’s unknown whether he will be able to go back. The KGB continue to raid the theater, and they continue to perform regularly.
MS: There’s no signs of change or [dictator] Alexander Lukashenko stepping down. A couple of weeks ago a physician was arrested who had posted video on YouTube of how the health services are so poor in Belarus. He was put in a psychiatric ward, and there continue to be terrifying stories coming out of the country where modes of repression are so broad.
AM: One thing that has come through is that they aren’t giving up. This is a movement of young people who are saying, “we’re going to document this, we’re going to show the world and we’re not going to stop.” There’s a sense that there is now group of people taking the risk to become opposition candidates. There’s a taste for freedom and democracy, that it will happen, it is unfolding.
MS: The thesis is we have to keep talking about it and exposing it. Hopefully increased exposure will accelerate the rate of change. What people can do is support underground artists in repressive regimes all over world by trying to draw attention for them by creating independent media and artistic works and video appeals of artists asking for people to pay attention and support. We’re hoping more people will generate those through Facebook, post thoughts and tag it so it’s shared with friend groups for exponential attention. (The Belarus Free Theatre website is here.)
AM: International organizations support citizen journalists and groups. We’re hoping to bring them in as well to create a bigger footprint.
How do they make a living?
MS: They can’t sell tickets in the country as they are not registered and face economic crimes. So they tour abroad like any theater looking for host theaters and festivals to take them. Their biggest challenge is creating new works, so they participate in residences and make ends meet how they can by waitressing or retail work. They are reliant on family, and have made a huge sacrifice.
AM: They have international support from the likes of Jude Law and Tom Stoppard and some theater people in New York have been instrumental in getting them greater visibility and supporting their work.