Confronting Censorship & Dictatorship: ‘Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus’

Madeleine Sackler's Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus chronicles an underground theater group performing against an ongoing tide of censorship and repression in present-day Belarus, Europe's last dictatorship. The daring performers create provocative theater that also carries great emotional, financial, and artistic risks for both its organizers and audiences. Weaving together smuggled footage, uncensored interviews, and crowdsourced video, Dangerous Acts creates what The Hollywood Reporter described as "a real-life drama whose final act has yet to be written."  A premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, Dangerous Acts screens at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival June 18. Filmmaker Madeleine Sackler describes the risks and rewards of turning the spotlight on the Eastern European nation that is still under the iron grip of a dictator—Alexander Lukashenko.

Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus

Madeleine Sackler, USA/UK/Belarus, 2013, 76m [HBO Documentary Films]

Responses by Madeleine Sackler:

On shedding light on unknown artistic persecution:

I met the Belarus Free Theatre when they were working in New York and began filming them in the summer of 2010. After hearing their story, I was shocked by the fact that their desire to tell stories about their lives led to severe persecution, and that this was happening in Europe. I realized that very few of my friends or colleagues were aware of what was happening in Belarus, so this struck me as an important story to tell. Also, as a filmmaker, I was intrigued by the idea of mixing raw, verité footage with excerpts from the Free Theatre's performances. I was excited by the idea of combining the two art forms, which you can get a glimpse of in the trailer.

On telling a story of art and the artists:

One of the reasons for the biographical nature of the Belarus Free Theatre's performances is that storytelling is one of the best ways to communicate new ideas. If you can weave emotion and personal experience into a great story, you can hold people's attention and hopefully their imagination in a way that other forms of media and activism may not. In a way, their theater is like a staged documentary. I hope that this film brings that work to life and adds cinematic elements of its own to take another step back and show not only the art but the artists who have risked everything to tell a good story.

On crafting a narrative from hundreds of hours of smuggled footage:

We were most concerned with safety. We did not want anyone who was participating in the filming process to be harmed, and we were worried that working in the country would draw negative attention to them, so we developed a strategy of working remotely, over Skype, with a fearless underground cinematographer who then smuggled hundreds of hours of footage out of a country that you rarely see depicted on film. This ended up being an essential process, because half of the group remained in exile, so we needed to be filming in two places at once for the better part of a year.

Filming at the protests was particularly difficult, and we ended up mainly crowdsourcing that footage. Many people who attended the protests supplied us with raw footage of their experiences there, which I think helps give you the feeling of being there yourself.

Aside from the potentially dangerous and logistical challenges of translating hundreds of hours of footage, I think that crafting the story was the hardest part of making this film. We were following a big group of people across three continents for 18 months, so winnowing that down into a story with a strong narrative arc was very difficult, but hopefully the story of the [subjects] as mothers, children, and artists comes through.

On providing a window into modern Belarus:

I've found two things over the course of making the film: (1) a lot of people I talk to mention that they have ancestry based in Belarus, and (2) a lot of people don't know about the situation there. I hope that with the film, we can share the story of Belarus, which was a big part of 19th-century history and continues to be important today. For me, learning more about Belarus and the region made me think a lot about the World Wars, and to remember how many people came to live in the U.S. The current expansion of Russia's power and the situation in Ukraine is reminiscent of that time. I think the film provides a window into that part of the world, which, as we know from history, really isn't so far away from ours.

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