Callum Madge speaks to director Madeleine Sackler about her documentary Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus, out in cinemas from Friday 28 March.
Known as the last dictatorship in Europe, Belarus has been under the authoritarian leadership of President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994. Lukashenko’s government is widely accepted to be corrupt with prominent members of opposition parties sometimes arrested and beaten, as well as a history of human rights abuses. Those who live in Belarus are subjected to strict laws and stricter policing. Struggling against this repression, the Belarus Free Theatre is a theatre company operating outside of government sanctions. Because they don’t not have the appropriate license they are not allowed to sell tickets and earn a living but they are one of the few Belarusian organisations that speaks out against their government. The theatre they make is overtly political, drawing on the personal experiences of their members to make affecting and painful shows that expose the reality of life in Belarus.
What particularly drew you to make a film around the Belarus Free Theatre?
I met the Free Theatre [BFT] when they were in New York, about six months before the violent crack down after the rigged election in 2010. I was really struck by the extremity of the repression in Belarus. I think in the States especially, maybe even more so than here [UK], there really isn’t a lot of awareness of the severity of the situation. And the fact that all they were trying to do was art and even that was being repressed. So I was really interested in the idea of trying to combine their art, which is very fact based – it’s very biographical, with on the ground footage of their lives. What that interaction between the two arts forms – theatre and documentary film making – could do to bring out a heightened sense of reality of what it feels like to live in Belarus. It was that artistic curiosity. And then as the situation escalated after the election and they fled the country it became much more of a story about what that does to a group of people and individuals.
How did you find working so closely with a group of people, some of who you knew to have been through traumatic and harrowing experiences?
It was challenging because there’s a lot of them. We featured four in the film but at the time there were seventeen members of the group. I think the hardest thing is that it’s a group of people. When we describe the film, we describe it as being about the BFT but that’s not really meaningful. It’s really the individual people that matter and all of their individual experiences were different: Oleg left behind a wife and had had a very tragic past with his son dying, Natalia and Nicolai were suddenly in London with a teenage daughter, Yana with her daughter trying to decide if it’s safe for her to grow up in Minsk given what Yana’s job is. That was really what I was most focused on – making sure that each person’s story was accurate and personal.
What with the evident repression in Belarus, how difficult did you find it to film, especially the footage shot at the protests in Minsk?
We did a lot of planning early on to strategise how to not put anybody into danger. That was obviously first and foremost. The plan we came up with was basically to work remotely. I don’t speak any Russian and there have been people who have been to visit the BFT in Belarus and have been turned around at the border. We didn’t want to alert officials, especially early on, about what we were doing, so what we tried at first and actually ended up working was I would Skype a cinematographer who had accreditation to own a camera.
It’s amazing and we wouldn’t have been able to do this ten years ago, but because it’s video she was able to literally walk me around different locations and so I could see very precisely what we would be filming that day. Similarly if something happened and we wanted to do an interview, we could do it on the fly. She would open up the computer, make my head full screen, set it next to the camera and I could do an interview immediately. That worked pretty well. So it was basically a one-person team [in Belarus] and that was how we were able to avoid detection. She couldn’t even ship [the hard drives of footage], so she would drive them to Lithuania or to Moscow and mail them to us from there.
I saw similarities between your film and Jehane Noujaim’s documentary about the Egyptian revolution The Square. Do you see elements of that happening now in Eastern Europe, especially now Putin has annexed Crimea from Ukraine?
Absolutely. Actually the thing that might be surprising to people is this preceded the Egyptian protest and this in many ways overshadowed what was happening in Belarus. In December  when the crack down happened it was on the front page of the New York Times and it was starting to gather steam and attention from the international community, until that happened in Egypt. I think what this is really emblematic of is the universality of the experience of people living in repression. It’s not just Belarus and it’s not just Egypt and it’s not just Ukraine. This is something that’s affecting millions of people around the world and there’s a lot of, not only analogous experiences but expressions of the desire for freedom.
These days some documentaries are lucky enough to garner political or ideological changes about their subject. How much of an impact do you think your film can make against a totalitarian state like Belarus?
Well it’s a hard thing to gauge. How do you measure impact? I think you can do it in a tangible way. In past films of mine we’ve focused on a specific policy and participated in generating awareness and trying to turn the tide of something very tangible. For something like this we’re much more focused on awareness. The baseline understanding of most people of what is happening in Belarus is so low and so we’re really hoping that the film will open people’s eyes to the fact that this is happening at all, which I think is really the first step to change.
Belarus is often overlooked in the media; there’s no oil, there’s no resources or industry that effects the West. So it’s very difficult for them to raise the flag and say ‘Hey look what’s happening over here.’ So we’re hoping the film can provide some meaning by which people can start talking and writing about it. Ultimately I hope the power of the film is in the human perspective. I wasn’t trying to make a political documentary that shows all of the ins and outs of Belarusian politics, or a documentary that shows how a dictator holds on to his authority. This is really about the experiences of a few people. You’ll notice there are no interviews other than the actual characters. That’s very intentional. It’s not meant to be one sided it’s just meant to be a glimpse, a look into a few people’s experiences.