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Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus: Toronto Review

The Bottom Line

The film has dark political drama, both onstage and off.

Starring

Nikolai Khalezin, Natalia Koliada, Vladimir Scherban

Director

Madeleine Sackler

Newly acquired by HBO, this globetrotting American documentary meets the brave theater group using art as a weapon against tyranny.

TORONTO – Spanning a dramatic year in the life of a small theater group defiantly resisting state harassment in the post-Soviet republic of Belarus, Dangerous Acts is an earnest but emotionally engaging affair. A former freelance editor and post-production assistant to Martin Scorsese, producer-director Madeleine Sackler is an Oklahoma-born 30-year-old best known for The Lottery, her well-received 2010 documentary on the controversial charter school system in Harlem. This is her third feature, a Toronto world premiere picked up for broadcast by HBO television.

Founded in 2005 by dramatists and human rights activists Nikolai Khalezin, Natalia Koliada and Vladimir Scherban, the Belarus Free Theater has turned live drama into an act of protest. For their troubles they have been censored, blacklisted, arrested, beaten, fired from other jobs and threatened with savage punishments, including rape. The initial shock of Stackler’s film is that these events are happening on the edge of modern Europe, not in Iran or North Korea. Conversely, the quaintly nostalgic notion that a tiny group of artists staging plays in cramped back rooms can still threaten governments is oddly heart-warming. Clear parallels with Pussy Riot jump out from several scenes.

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For the last two decades, Belarus has labored under the authoritarian rule of Alexander Lukashenko, a Soviet-style president widely condemned abroad for human rights violations and rigged elections. Often branded “Europe’s last dictator”, Lukashenko remains a close ally of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and shares many of his undemocratic traits. At the last election, in 2010, several opposition candidates who stood against him were beaten, arrested and jailed on trumped-up public order charges. State-controlled media channels claimed Lukashenko won around 80 percent of the vote. Just imagine, one of the theater players says, living your entire life under Bush or Obama.

The election was greeted with widespread public protests in the capital city of Minsk, which feature in Stackler’s film, including ugly footage of the violence they met from government thugs. In the crackdown on opposition voices that followed, the group’s activities went from being difficult to impossible. With KGB officers hammering on their doors, the members had to be smuggled out of Belarus to political asylum in Britain and America, sometimes leaving loved ones and children behind. The film’s latter half shows their struggles to adjust to exile, but also the powerful stage productions they mount in Manhattan, London and Edinburgh, which earn prizes and rave reviews.

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Shot in a fairly conventional style, Dangerous Acts feels televisual rather than cinematic. Though this is the unashamedly partisan work of a director embedded with her subjects, it is also an admirable document of courage and resistance -- not just by the Free Theater members but the filmmakers too, who risked their safety in filming Lukashenko’s hired thugs and in smuggling footage out of Belarus. Closing with a montage of endorsements from supporters of the group, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, Jude Law and the late Czech playwright-president Vaclav Havel, this is clearly a real-life drama whose final act has yet to be written.

Production company: Great Curve Films

Producer: Madeleine Sackler

Starring: Nikolai Khalezin, Natalia Koliada, Vladimir Scherban

Director: Madeleine Sackler

Cinematographers: Daniel Carter, Larissa Kabernik

Editors: Anne Barliant, Leigh Johnson

Music: Wendy Blackstone

Sales companies: Dogwoof (International) / Submarine Entertainment (U.S.)

Rated PG, 76 minutes