The danger of free artistic expression in Belarus

Dangerous Acts

Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, is sometimes called the last dictator in Europe. Lukashenko is believed to have stolen the 2010 elections, claiming to have won nearly 80% of the vote against his 9 opponents.

Riot police were prepared when people gathered in protest in October Square, located in the capital city of Minsk. People were beaten and bloodied by the police. Several hundred were arrested, including 7 of the candidates that ran against Lukashenko in the election.

The unfolding events in the Ukraine earlier this year were frightening familiar to filmmaker Madeleine Sackler. Russia would not stand idly by while Ukranians protested against a regime they did not support. It was striking that another Russian neighbor went through a similar ordeal only four years prior.

Sackler’s new film Dangerous Acts follows a group of actors and artists who make up the independent Belarus Free Theatre. State censorship is so strong that it is illegal to perform without state approval. Performance information has to be shared carefully and the people who attend are told to bring their passports in case there is a raid.

“In Belarus, everything is political,” said Sackler to Humanosphere. “The very act of creating  a theater that is operating outside of the guidelines of the state is a political action.”

Sackler’s film follows the members of the theater group from late 2010 through 2011. It covers the period just before and after the December presidential elections that ended in protest and violent crackdowns. Performances by the group, “focus on issues that are not publicly discussed,” explains one of the members, in the film.

The group draws from their personal experiences for the stories they perform. Oleg, the lead actor of the group, takes the stage and sits next to a small chair. He speaks to the audience about being a weekend father because that was the only time he saw his son. He continues to describe how the boy was found, at the age of 10, hanging from a leather belt in the apartment building where he lived with his mother and step-father. The emotional weight of the true story is visible in the weeping audience.

Such honest performances are not a part of state-approved theater in Belarus. Actors, like Oleg, receive very good professional training, but are relegated to playing parts that are devoid of deeper human emotions. The Belarus Free Theatre was founded in 2005 by Nikolai Khalezin and his wife Natalia Kolyada. Khalezin tried working as an art gallery manager and journalist, but pressure and forced shut-downs led turned him away from the professions.

Then he started writing plays. Actors joined the Belarus Free Theatre, but soon learned that it meant they could no longer work in the well paying state theater. Motivations behind joining varied, but the 2010 elections changed things. Many of the group fled the country out of fear for their safety. Khalezin, Kolyada and Oleg were strong supporters of opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov.

To film their story, Sackler had to work with a small team based in Belarus. Given the country’s strong censorship laws, traveling to Belarus to film would draw undue attention to Sackler and the Belarus Free Theatre. The footage that comes from Belarus was smuggled out of the country. Sackler had to work with her team through Skype conversations and translators. Scenes of the protests, and the violent crackdowns, were produced using crowdsourced footage.

The final film is as much a story about the Belarus Free Theatre as it is about a country where free expression is struck down.

“I want my child to live in a normal, free country,” says Yana, one of the actresses in the theater.

A scene from a Belarus Free Theatre performance.
A scene from a Belarus Free Theatre performance.
Dangerous Acts

Having sought asylum in New York City in early 2011, they performed their play Being Harold Pinter at La MaMa. New York Times critic Ben Brantley gave the performance a positive review, citing the way that the play uses the words of famed playwright Harold Pinter and the experience of life in Belarus.

[T]he fierceness, sorrow and theatrical electricity that crackle throughout this extraordinary production are pure Pinter. Early in the show Pinter is heard speaking of his own imminent death. “Being Harold Pinter” suggests he never died at all.

Most of the theater members returned to Belarus shortly after. Khalezin, Kolyada and Oleg remained because of impending prison charges. The Belarus Free Theatre continues to put on performances, thanks to communication between the founders, now in London, and the members back in Minsk.

Three years later, things are not better in Belarus. Sannikov was released from jail after more than a year and is living in Warsaw. The space where the Belarus Free Theatre performed was recently shut down and pressures continue to close in on the group.

“You are slowly squeezed into a box, kind of like that Star Wars scene. Except it is coming from everywhere,” said Sackler.

The events in the Ukraine have clearly affected the way that she sees her own film.

“Initially, I wanted people to remember what I consistently forget, the fact that I can make movies however I want, terrible or great,” she said. “The fact that that the films can have whatever content I want is actually a luxury.”

“Now, the world is a bit different. I hope people recognize the news in the region and know that it is not that far away.”

Dangerous Acts premiers on HBO July 7 at 9 PM.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.