can judge the legitimacy of Belarus President-for-life Alexander Lukashenko’s
latest “re-election” by the countries that sent their congratulations:
Venezuela, Syria, Russia, China, and deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
For many, it was just business as usual in what has been dubbed “Europe’s Last
Dictatorship.” However, it was an outrageous affront to independent thinking
Belarusians, like the underground Belarus Free Theatre (BFT). Filmmaker
Madeleine Sackler provides an uncensored chronicle of the activist artists’
Annus horribilis in Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus (trailer here), which premieres
this coming Monday on HBO.
a state as pervasively regulated as Belarus, any theater group that
forthrightly holds a mirror up to society will have to operate outside the
official arts bureaucracy, in direct defiance of the law. The small rag-tag
troupe was accustomed to a routine level of surveillance and harassment, but
the presidential election on December 19, 2010 precipitated a nationwide reign
of terror. Co-founders Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin were close family
friends of Andrei Sannikov, the leading opposition candidate everyone expected
to win the presidency if the elections were even remotely fair. That did not
happen. Although tens of thousands of protestors demonstrated on Liberty
Square, the regime responded with violence, imprisoning Sannikov and six other opposition
most of the BFT were able to evade the KGB (yes, they retained those charming
initials), ironically fleeing through Russia. However, the time away from their
homeland and families takes a toll on them. The only way they know how to
process it is through their art.
the BFT is a tricky proposition. Many of the productions Sackler documents are
distinctly avant-garde, rather closely akin to the style of Poland’s formerly
dissident Theatre of the Eighth Day. Yet, sometimes their performances are
painfully intimate and achingly accessible. Frankly, the film’s most intense
and devastating sequence does not feature the brutal violence unleashed by the
KGB (though there is a good deal of that and it is truly appalling). Instead, a
monologue written by featured actor “Oleg” relating the non-political
circumstances surrounding a personal tragedy truly leaves audiences emotionally
when performing under a regime that prohibits open discussion of mental health,
suicide, drug use, and sexuality, the personal becomes perversely political.
Sackler and her editors Anne Barliant and Leigh Johnson show Solomon-like
judgment, perfectly balancing the political and the artistic, the national and
the individual, the macro and the micro.
A heck of a lot of courage went into the making of Dangerous Acts, starting with the BFT, but also including the
Belarusian cinematographer Sackler directed via Skype and the small army of eye
witnesses and netizen-journalists who contributed protest-crackdown footage.
To her credit, Sackler has tackled some bold
subjects, following up her first-rate charter school documentary, The Lottery, with the censorship-defying
Dangerous Acts. As a result, she
might be one of the few people who can say which is more ruthless protecting
their power, Lukashenko or the New York teachers union. Both tell critically
important stories, but Dangerous Acts has
even more urgency. Highly recommended for all lovers of liberty and advocates
for human rights, particularly on the weekend we celebrate our independence, Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable
Elements of Belarus premieres Monday night (7/7) on HBO, with further air
dates scheduled for 7/9, 7/10, 7/13, 7/16, 7/19, and 7/25.
Labels: Andrei Sannikov, Belarus Free Theatre, Documentary, HBO