By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 20, 2013 at 2:25PM
I learned a lot of things I did not know in Madeleine Sackler's astonishing documentary "Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus," which HBO Documentary Films scooped up before its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. (HBO will air the film in 2014.) The weird title starts to make sense when you see the movie, which chronicles the many hurdles placed in front of an underground theater troupe, the Belarus Free Theatre, which insists on performing despite being barred from working for pay within the last surviving Communist dictatorship in Eastern Europe.
Not only is it moving to watch these artists express their rage and frustration and tell the stories of their lives, but their urgency and compulsion to perform against all odds feeds their art. It's damned compelling. British playwright Tom Stoppard saw the troupe in Minsk and said: "I wish all my plays would be performed by a theatre like this."
Luckily they have built a following and support across the globe performing outside their country. But director Madeleine Sackler and executive producer Andrea Meditch figured out how to shoot inside Belarus as well, starting in 2010 by hiring a local camerawoman to go where they could not risk going. They communicated via Skype.
We see how the group reaches out to the community and stages their shows, under the radar. They play to packed to houses. You can see the hunger in the audience for their angry, authentic uncensored theater.
As the KGB targets Free Theatre founders Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada, they flee the country and take up residence inLondon--but still communicate with their troupe via Skype, as the filmmakers did.
Anne Thompson: How did you find out about this story?
Madeleine Sackler: I was finishing up my first film in New York and read about them. They were going through New York and I had heard about some of their work in Belarus. A friend in theater knew them, and I asked for an introduction. I ran up to meet them six months before we started filming in 2010 after which they fled to New York. We picked the story from there. Part of what drew me to the story was the reality they were living in. For them the simplest act to get on stage and tell stories about their lives was dangerous. They told me they were raided by the KGB multiple times, and many of their friends have disappeared.
How did you shoot the footage in Belarus? It must have been dangerous.
Our first concern was their safety, who should go over. They had had Americans come to visit who were turned around at the border. The safest way was to find someone with state accreditation in Belarus to work with over Skype, and not raise the red flag that we were shooting a movie. We found a resilient young woman with an HD camera who we worked with over Skype. She was amazing, she could open up her computer with Skype turned on and walk it around different locations, so we could see what we were shooting in advance, and be specific about what to capture. She would drive the hard drive across the border to Lithuania and Russia, and mail them from there. She kept many copies under beds, stored in friends attics etc. They are very censored and we didn't want it seized.
Andrea Meditch: She's in the tradition of more news shooting. Madeleine as she was directing her was able to direct this young shooter for documentaries in a cross-border collaboration that was not possible a few years ago.
MS: On the first hard drive we saw news footage, with a frenetic turn on and off as she got short shots of one thing after another. It was unusable to cut a verite-based scene. I had a heart attack when I opened the first hard drive. But I jumped on Skype with translaters and said, "we need an establishing shot, when there's two people it's helpful to have an over the shoulder shot and the reverse angle."
We credited her in the film, had conversations with everyone who participated, because we don't want anyone to get in trouble. She was not willing to shoot at the protests, that footage comes from a group of different filmmakers and citizen journalists; we collected their raw footage, and were able to bring those scenes to life.
AM: We had 450 hours raw footage in Russian. One of the interesting things is that the citizen journalist becomes a character, we don't see them but we see their POV, we see what happens to them as the witness becomes engaged. That allows the rest of us to see what is happening in intimate ways.
How did you find these people?