Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus (dir: Madeleine Sackler)

Posted: March 21, 2014 in Documentary, English language, New releases
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Documentary – 76 minutes


A member of the Belarus Free Theatre looks at his audience and tells them that scars are good. Women like men with scars. Scars are sexy. And then the punchline: In Minsk there are many men with scars.

The Belarus Free Theatre are a group of actors working without official sanction in Europe’s only dictatorship. For in Belarus there are state-approved theatre groups and anyone else is asking for trouble. The members of this group started out in state theatre, but then began working together on the material that interested them, increasingly using their drama as a form of protest. As one member tells us, the state can control what you see in film and television, and what you hear on radio, but theatre is different. Theatre takes place in the here and now, and that very immediacy gives it power. Before long members of the Free Theatre found themselves losing their jobs as a consequence of this activity, but this simply seems to have spurred their dedication. This highly affecting documentary, filmed surreptitiously and smuggled out of the country, tells the story of the group from just before 2010’s presidential elections.

The actors are encouraged by the candidacy of Andrei Sannikov. One theatre member describes the results thus: An election official goes to President Lukashenko and tells him there is good news and bad news. The good news is that he has won the election. The bad news is that no-one voted for him. After the results are announced there are protests in the main square at Minsk. The police arrive, arrest Sannikov and many others, and people are beaten up.

After this terrible event the Belarus Free Theatre continue to perform when they can, but things get harder, especially as the actors are so closely associated with the opposition movement. I could not help but be impressed and humbled by the dedication of the actors to their calling, especially in the face of the fear they so obviously felt. There is also something splendid about the fact that, conversely, a state can be so afraid of a small group of actors. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but in the event that I’m wrong I’m sure that one of Britain’s late, great, playwrights will have had pleasure from looking down and seeing these Belarusians putting on a piece titled “Being Harold Pinter”.

Eventually, some of the actors flee Belarus under forged passports, ending up in Britain where they maintain contact with their families and colleagues back home via the internet. Creating a new group here, they take a show to the Edinburgh Festival, where Natalia Koliada tells her audience that Belarus is not a sexy country. Sexy countries, she says, have oil, diamonds, mountains; Belarus is flat – no-one wants to come near us.

But the words that have really stayed with me are spoken when we see two of the exiles in a park, pacing up an incline. The man (Oleg, I think) rehearses his English: “We are walking up a hill”. His companion, who has a better grasp of the English pronunciations, repeats this: “We are walking up a hill”, she says. He tells her: “I think this is a slogan for our life”.

Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus opened the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London on 18th March.

Rating: 8/10

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