In 1994, a long-awaited democratic election was due to be held in Belarus. It would have been the first of its kind in a country occupied by the Soviet Union until late 1991. Amidst high hopes and democratic aspirations, a little-known political figure emerged: Alexander Lukashenko, a 40-year old supporter of the former Soviet regime. The elections were held, and Lukashenko triumphed, securing over 80% of the vote during the second round of the election. Seen by many as rigged, the election effectively created a new dictatorship in Europe.
In 2010, sixteen years after Lukashenko assumed office as leader of the nation, another presidential election was held. Described as a ‘charade of a poll’ by The Economist, it resulted in the extension of Lukashenko’s seemingly eternal post, giving rise to what is widely referred to as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’. Widespread protests and the arrest of over 600 members of the public followed, including several of the candidates who ran against Lukashenko. One member of the opposition who was arrested was Natalia Kaliada, founder of the Belarus Free Theatre – the subject of Madeleine Sackler’s Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus (2013)
The Belarus Free Theatre is no ordinary theatre. Founded in 2005 and made up of a small cast of actors and technicians, several of whom are currently in exile, the theatre brings together political activism with conceptual art. Unregistered and persecuted by the Belarusian KGB, the theatre stages its plays in secret and does not charge an admission fee, for fear of prosecution on the grounds of illicit economic activity. Its productions revolve around a critique of the state, its wrongdoings and the paralysing influence it exerts over the Belarusian people.
While theatres such as this one have always existed within the bounds of dictatorships, Sackler’s Dangerous Acts reveals that this group is, indeed, very special. As we journey from their humble stage in a dilapidated house in Minsk to the streets of New York and London, where the actors turn seamlessly into political activists and hand out anti-Lukashenko pamphlets, it becomes clear that this theatre stands for something much bigger and more tangible: active change in an oppressed society.
The film is no ordinary documentary, either. Its chronological structure takes the aforementioned 2010 election day as its starting point, and chronicles the human – and artistic – drama of the members of the Free Theatre. From the beginning, the linear progression is pierced with snippets of their personal lives, scenes from their boldest performances, shocking footage of the KGB’s abuse of human rights during peaceful protests. Wherever they may be, the focus of the film keeps remains firmly on Belarus: their successful visit to New York, where the group won numerous accolades, is overshadowed by the obligation to return to Belarus; the London scene is dominated by the colours of the white-red-white flag suggesting the nation’s dominating importance in the minds of the cast.
Back in Minsk, the theatre stage is a humble, small space divided into two; the audience sits on one side, on wooden benches, in a room that was once separate, but where the wall has been torn out to create the illusion of a larger space; the actors stand just a couple of metres away, close enough for the dramatic connection to become real. Engagement defines the relationship between actor and audience: Oleg, a middle-aged member of the cast, sits in front of his audience, and begins telling a story that is his own, and not his character’s. Tears well up in the eyes of the spectators; some can’t hold it in. A sense of intimacy rises and fills the dramatic space.
During other performances, of which we see mere fragments, the Belarus Free Theatre is at its best while performing for its country, and against its government. Often wordless, these shows thrive on gesture and the actors’ quite unstaged belief in their political mission. Beauty and horror, violence and protest, nudity and uniform paint a canvas of defiance, and echo, with infinite energy, the film’s opening lines: ‘As an actor on stage, I know every detail. Where my props are, every second, every minute, straight through the end of the performance. But in life I can’t predict anything.’
Indeed, the fabric of their performances is woven from this, and other discrepancies – conflicted, conflicting, the actors’ dramatic and personal realities shuffle and interweave on stage. This is also, in part, why the film is so successful at telling the tale of the Belarus Free Theatre so convincingly. Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus renders theatre’s power to defy the state, but it does this via the actors as they are on- and off-stage, without further embellishment or narrative. It is, perhaps, because of this that Sackler’s documentary has made waves at international film festivals, including ones in Amsterdam, London and Toronto.
Along with the awards came recognition from theatre professionals, critics and, most recently, several British celebrities. The theatre used the occasion of the 2014 World Cup of Ice Hockey in Belarus – aware of Lukashenko’s passion for the sport – to publish an open letter addressed to the teams participating in the tournament.
The letter calls on the participating teams to show their support, stating that ‘artists and athletes have a responsibility to make voices heard on behalf of those who are silenced, not as athletes or as artists, but as fellow human beings.’ It was signed by the likes of Hugh Grant, Jude Law, Stephen Fry and Tom Stoppard, himself an ardent supporter of Belarus Free Theatre. Although the theatre received no formal response, the gesture is a powerful and poignant symbol of a battle that goes on.
Watch the trailer to Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus:
As part of their 10th anniversary celebrations, Belarus Free Theatre is partnering up with the Young Vic for an epic festival: Staging a Revolution. The performances and discussions will take place in London’s Young Vic and at secret locations throughout November.