In Dangerous Acts (2013), Madeleine Sackler documents a year in the life of the Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), an acclaimed theatrical troupe forced to work underground in their native country. President Lukashenko, often dubbed Europe’s last remaining dictator, has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for the past twenty years. Free expression is suppressed and dissidents are frequently harassed or even imprisoned. As all the theatres are state-owned, the BFT has, since its founding back in 2005, put on a series of secret performances that explore issues deemed sensitive by the state. As well as politics, these pieces have explored alcoholism, sexual orientation and suicide.
The group is denied a license and charging for admission is therefore deemed “illegal economic activity”. Most members of the BFT have suffered for their art. They have been detained, harassed, lost their jobs in state theatre or been denied the opportunity to work elsewhere. Beginning in 2010, Sackler records the performers’ dismay as President Lukashenko wins another term in power and their differing fates in the bitter crackdown that followed the rigged elections. Fearing arrest, for having supported opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov, the company’s founders, Vladimir Scherban, husband and wife team Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada, and veteran actor Oleg Sidorchik are forced to seek asylum in Britain.
Interviews with members of the troupe are combined with scenes from their live shows performed in Belarus, Edinburgh, London and New York. These include Belarus 2011 and Being Harold Pinter – both dramatised the torture testimonies of Belarusian dissidents. Particularly affecting are the images of children in Minsk playing at arresting and handcuffing each other, as well as the BFT’s attempts to interest the British public in the plight of Belarusian dissidents while leafleting in London. Sackler also uses footage of the demonstrations in Minsk, showing protesters being brutally hauled into vans by the Russian KGB. Not surprisingly, all of the film shot in Belarus had to be smuggled out of the country.
Dangerous Acts might have benefited from a brief overview of Belarus, its economic ties to Russia and President Lukashenko’s rise to power for those who know little about the authoritarian regime. Sackler plunges in without offering much in the way of an introduction. Many non-theatre goers will probably never have heard of BFT and comparisons will inevitably be made with the better-known Russian punk band Pussy Riot and their particular brand of performance art as protest. But these are minor caveats. This is an absorbing documentary that shines a light on the courage and talents of its subjects.
Dangerous Acts is released in UK cinemas on 27 March 2014. For more info, visit dogwoof.com.