Dictatorships are threatened by art that destabilizes. The Chinese government bans stories with time travel. And Czechoslovakia’s Communist authorities took issue with the lack of clear definition between dreams and reality in surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer’s work. The current Belarussian regime similarly censors the narratives being told in their country. The Belarus Free Theatre has been banned from performing there. Their works are explicitly political in their content, but they are also formally challenging. The viscerally agitating quality of the group’s performances and the cost of their dissident story-telling is on display in a new documentary Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus.
The film directed by Madeleine Sackler gives us an intimate portrait of an experimental theater group in Europe’s last dictatorship. It follows the group as they witness the state’s violent crackdown on protests following the farcical December 2010 election in which Alexander Lukashenko solidified his 16-year hold on the country, and the group’s exile. I chatted to Sackler about the difficult process of making an uncensored film in an authoritarian regime, the necessity of art, and the geopolitics in the region.
How did you first hear about the Belarus Free Theatre group?
I met them when they were in New York working on a new play at a residency at this organization called the Orchard Project that a friend of mine runs and he told me about them. I was very surprised by their story. I didn’t know a lot about Belarus myself and became very curious about who are these people risking their lives to make this art. I started filming them and that was six months before the rigged election and the violent crackdown that happened then.
How did the film change from your initial idea?
The original concept for the film was a little bit experimental. I wanted to make a film that was entirely theatre and verité and using a complete performance—ideally a new one—as the backbone. I wanted to weave in and out with footage on the ground of life in Belarus that was either tangentially or metaphorically related to what they were doing on stage. There are still elements of that in the film. You get this sense of heightened reality. But they were forced to leave the country and it became the film that it is about home and art and exile.
And so you never have been to Belarus, right? You directed a lot of this from afar?
We worked completely over Skype for the footage in Belarus. And then internationally, I was filming which ended up being very important because at times we had to be able to be in two places at once. One of the reasons we didn’t travel to Belarus is that we didn’t want to draw added attention and risk to the woman who was filming for us in Minsk who was really risking a lot to do this. She had state accreditation to own a camera so if she were pulled over by the KGB it would be ok, but then she was having to package and smuggle over the border to Lithuania the footage that someone was shipping it to us.
It ended up working really well directing over video chat. I could see everything and I could do all the interviews. I could actually be very precise without being a physical presence in the room. If you’ve ever made a documentary before, you know having fewer people in the room is always helpful. I could say, of see that picture in the bedroom, make sure you get a pick-up shot of that, but I didn’t have to crouch in the corner like you have to when you are really there.
A big theme in the film is that art helps them survive this difficult situation. How did you see that manifest when you were around them?
Even after spending three or four years making the film, I still find myself wondering “why are they doing this?” It’s easy to be idealistic and say, Because they are human and they are fighting for their personal freedom, but when you really think about it, like, would you? And when I really stopped and thought about it, I don’t think I would, especially if I had a kid. It’s very hard to imagine going to such risk to walk on stage and tell a story. And I think the answer to the question of why they do it, is this is who they are as people. They can’t do anything else.
How is the conflict in Ukraine affecting the situation in Belarus?
It has an ironic impact in that it’s improved Lukashenko’s polling. They think he can protect them from Russia. Russia and its infiltration of Ukraine is something that all of the sovereign states in the region fear. And people in Belarus think that Lukashenko can keep them safe from Russia. But there’s going to be another election in Belarus next year, and I think you will see the same cycle of activity and protect as before. Ukraine and Egypt have also distracted from the situation in Belarus. It’s hard for them to get any attention when there’s so much happening next door.
At the same time, what you see in the film, what life is like in Belarus, it’s exposing what Russia would like for that region. People think what’s happening in Ukraine is sudden and it’s not. Putin has been planting the seeds for infiltration. There has been a culture war going on in the airwaves. He has longterm plans and strategies directed at NATO allies. So if we think the world is going to look the same in the next five or ten years, we are being naive. The borders in Europe are being redrawn. it’s not just Eastern Europe. Look at Spain. Look at the UK. So the film is not a niche story. This is the geopolitics of the world right now and I can’t figure out how to make people realize that.