Every March, the Human Rights watch Film Festival showcases a selection of independent films and documentaries that deal with today’s pressing social issues. We sent DiA Communications and Marketing Manager, Tal Gurevich, to the 2014 London premiere.
In the year that marks the 20th anniversary in power of ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’ – Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus – it is only fitting that Madeleine Sackler’s moving documentary about the resolute struggle of an underground theatre movement against his oppressive regime opened London’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival.
The documentary centres on Belarus’s latest presidential elections in 2010 and their violent aftermath. Hope for change was shattered when Lukashenko was re-elected in a rigged election with close to 80% of the vote. A vicious crackdown followed and thousands of protestors were beaten, arrested, imprisoned and disappeared. Opposition candidates were subjected to torture and sentenced to years in prison, often in solitary confinement.
This shocking brutality was captured by the Belarus Free Theatre in their raw and physical play, ‘Minsk, 2011: A reply to Kathy Acker’. In a performance that won the FringeFirst Award at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011, Yana Rusakevich stands stark naked and unashamed. Belarus is not a sexy country, she exclaims. It has no sea, mountains or significant natural resources, so the world is not paying attention to the plight of its people. The Belarus Free Theatre has taken it upon itself to be the dangerous and unstable element in Belarusian society, using the medium of provocative theatre to reflect the urgency of the situation and put recent events under the international spotlight.
In reality, the theatre is anything but ‘free’ in Belarus. Actors associated with the Free Theatre have been fired from their state-sponsored jobs, while the company itself is not officially registered and its only rehearsal space was closed by the authorities in September 2013. All performances are held in secret locations, changeable at short notice, with tickets sold discretely over the phone. To make the documentary, footage had to be smuggled out of the country at great personal risk.
Sackler’s documentary effectively contrasts the Theatre’s incredible artistic achievements with the tremendous personal sacrifice of the actors. Cast members had to flee to the US in the wake of the December 2010 protests, often not speaking a word of English. One actor emphasised in an interview that unlike in a performance, where they know exactly where the props are and what the next line is going to be, in reality the actors are constantly fraught with uncertainty and anxiety over their futures.
There is a beautifully unnerving scene of three young children role-playing, handcuffing a girl to a tree and performing a mock execution. In Belarus this is a very real prospect for anyone who dares challenge the regime. Unlike in the Ukraine where the recent confrontation between anti-government protestors and authorities was allowed to fester for several months, in Belarus the punishment for peaceful protests has been immediate and severe, creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear.
Maryna Yurevich, an actress, says that everyone knows at least one friend or acquaintance that has been arrested, beaten or threatened by the authorities. The resolution of Belarus Free Theatre to continue in such dangerous conditions makes their achievements even more impressive. It is this strength that comes out in the caricatured characters, themes and the physical nature of their performances, which have caught the world’s attention.
‘It’s easy to live in a dictatorship. You don’t have to think, don’t have to make decisions.’ This, the opening line of the documentary could work equally well at the end. Belarus Free Theatre takes the inhumanity and indignity of the regime and turns it into a believable, human story. But the opposition is getting weaker according to Oleg, a subject of the documentary. The most determined activists have been imprisoned, while others have fled the country. People are afraid of making noise, of being dangerous acts. They want to be stable elements.
If Pussy Riot has taught as anything, it is that art has incredible power to draw attention to pressing issues. Belarus Free Theatre is certainly drawing attention to ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’, bravely and at the expense of the actors’ own personal wellbeing. What the political consequences of this could be is less clear. Sackler raised the Presidential Elections in late 2015 and the 2014 World Ice Hockey Championship in May in Minsk as two events with the potential to trigger both national and international movement against the regime. Lukashenko and Russian president Vladimir Putin – referred to in the post-screening Q&A as ‘two patients in the same ward’ – are best of friends: they even played a friendly ice hockey match in January in Sochi ahead of the Winter Olympics. Given Lukashenko’s high dependence on Putin and Russia, any action the country takes, as well as its standing in the international community, will definitely be worth watching closely.
The UK premiere of Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus was screened at the Curzon Soho, London on 20 March 2014 as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Visit the website to watch the trailer and find a screening near you.
Click here for more reviews of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on The DiA Blog.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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