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Sackler Talks Astonishing TIFF Doc 'Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus'

Photo of Anne Thompson 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.
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'Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus'
'Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus'

MS: One of cameramen at the protest got beat up, their face was bleeding and the camera was broken. It's a pretty tight community. It was a combination of two or three people we talked to in advance who saw othe people filming and asked for friends' and friends of friends' footage.

Not only is the troupe's story riveting but their work is as well.

MS: For me there were two reasons I was intersted in making the film. I was so shocked by their story. I didn't know this was happening in the middle of Europe. From an artistic point of view we were mixing two art forms, autobiographical and biographical, by bringing to the stage real stories of things that we happening on the street. I saw an opportunity to intercut with live footage and to try and create a sense of heightened reality. You often feel that these situations are distant, but this is the amazing value of art, it can make it feel present, like their stories are your stories. That was the artistic challenge upfront: can you bring together and combine theatrical renditions of stories with film?

AM: When we first met two years ago we were struck by the power of their performance, the passion and intimacy about their lives and their families' lives. That passion and intimacy comes through. It makes what was specific universal, weaving performance footage and personal stories is what gives the film its power.

MS: We first met in June 2010 and after the crackdown on January 1 they fled to NYC where I'm based, so I was able start filming the day-to-day realities of that escape. They've dropped everything and left the country, and did not know if they could go back. So the story we set out to film changed. As we see in the film their fate may be to never be able to go home. We had two crews filming simultaneously with the logistics of international scheduling. 

AM: This gives you front row seat to this emerging change, what happens to people in these kinds of revolutions when they try to make a change unfolding in real time.

How is the theater troupe doing now? 

MS: It continues theater to be raided, some of them can't go home, some of the hazards we can't even include, things that are happening to kids and family members over there. We wanted in the filmmaking process to keep everybody safe.

AM: As you see in film, the presidential candidate is in London, and it's unknown whether he will be able to go back. The KGB continue to raid the theater, and they continue to perform regularly.

MS: There's no signs of change or [dictator] Alexander Lukashenko stepping down. A couple of weeks ago a physician was arrested who had posted video on YouTube of how the health services are so poor in Belarus. He was put in a psychiatric ward, and there continue to be terrifying stories coming out of the country where modes of repression are so broad. 

AM: One thing that has come through is that they aren't giving up. This is a movement of young people who are saying, "we're going to document this, we're going to show the world and we're not going to stop." There's a sense that there is now group of people taking the risk to become opposition candidates. There's a taste for freedom and democracy, that it will happen, it is unfolding. 

MS: The thesis is we have to keep talking about it and exposing it. Hopefully increased exposure will accelerate the rate of change. What people can do is support underground artists in repressive regimes all over world by trying to draw attention for them by creating independent media and artistic works and video appeals of artists asking for people to pay attention and support. We're hoping more people will generate those through Facebook, post thoughts and tag it so it's shared with friend groups for exponential attention. (The Belarus Free Theatre website is here.) 

AM: International organizations support citizen journalists and groups. We're hoping to bring them in as well to create a bigger footprint. 

How do they make a living? 

MS: They can't sell tickets in the country as they are not registered and face economic crimes. So they tour abroad like any theater looking for host theaters and festivals to take them. Their biggest challenge is creating new works, so they participate in residences and make ends meet how they can by waitressing or retail work. They are reliant on family, and have made a huge sacrifice.

AM: They have international support from the likes of Jude Law and Tom Stoppard and some theater people in New York have been instrumental in getting them greater visibility and supporting their work. 

This article is related to: Toronto, Toronto International Film Festival, Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus, Madeleine Sackler, Interviews, Interviews , Interviews, Documentary, Documentaries, Festivals


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.