These actors risk prison, exile in Belarus to tell the uncensored truth

Belarus Free Theatre in Trash Cuisine. Photo by Simon Annand.

Belarus Free Theatre in Trash Cuisine. Photo by Simon Annand.

In Belarus, a country bordering Ukraine and Russia, uncensored art is regarded by the government as a criminal activity and can have dire consequences, including imprisonment, life in exile, or worse. But one group of actors refuses to remain silent. In Dangerous Acts starring the Ubstable Elements of Belarus, director Madeleine Sackler goes behind the scenes with the Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), an internationally acclaimed underground troupe of courageous performers who, in a country choked by censorship and repression, defy Europe’s last remaining dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. The HBO Documentary Films presentation debuts Monday, JULY 7 (9:00-10:15 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.

Founded in March 2005 by Natalia Kaliada, Vladimir Shcherban and acclaimed journalist Nicolai Khalezin, all of whom currently live in exile in London, BFT creates theater that addresses social and political issues in their home country. Because of the power of its message, as seen in several performances, the troupe has a wide range of international supporters, including Sir Tom Stoppard and Jude Law, both trustees of BFT, as well as critical acclaim overseas.

Featuring smuggled cinema verité footage and uncensored interviews, Dangerous Acts gives audiences a front row seat to a resistance movement unfolding on the stage and in the streets. As members of the award-winning troupe face the choice of repression at home or life in exile, the documentary affirms the belief that the power of art and hope can transcend political oppression.

One cure for homosexuality in places like Belarus and Russia is castration.

One cure for homosexuality in places like Belarus and Russia is castration.

When authorities forbid critical examination of such topics as sexual orientation, alcoholism, suicide and politics, the BFT responds by injecting these taboos into performances staged in a tiny underground space in Minsk. The troupe is unable to promote its shows or charge admission for fear of imprisonment, and audiences are summoned via text messages and advised to bring their passports in the event of a raid.

Support from the international theater community, and extended trips to New York, performing at the Public Theater, and London, performing at the Old Vic, bring their performances to far larger audiences than they could ever hope for in Minsk, where fixed elections and a crushing military presence have kept President Alexander Lukashenko in power for 20 years and counting.

Dangerous Acts picks up the story in 2010, when the KGB is cracking down on dissenters, 16 years after Lukashenko took power during the breakup of the Soviet Union. With another dubious presidential election looming, the KGB targets members of BFT, who find themselves torn between their art and their own safety. Andrei Sannikov, a leading opposition candidate and close friend of Kaliada and Khalezin, enjoys widespread public support, but is doomed to fail. In an election considered a farce by the international community, Lukashenko claims reelection. As the joke in Belarus goes, “The good news is, you’re president again. The bad news is, no one voted for you.”

“What qualifies as a dangerous act varies by community, by state, by region, by country, and I don’t know if I would have been willing – and I certainly wouldn’t have been legally able – to make this film if I lived in Belarus,” comments director Madeleine Sackler. “But I hope the story of the Free Theatre can be a reminder of those around the world who are willing to risk everything to tell the truth.”

Even the public art signals the harshness of the regime in Belarus. Here is their dour "Monument to a Warrior."

Even the public art signals the harshness of the regime in Belarus. Here is their dour “Monument to a Warrior.”

“Life under a dictatorship is very easy,” says Oleg Sidorchik, one of the troupe’s lead actors. “There’s no need to make decisions, and there are no problems.” His ironic remark belies the reality that he’s become a political refugee. The BFT lost its home base in 2011, but co-founder Natalia Kaliada remains undeterred, noting, “Even when none of us knew what would be happening next, it was possible to make art out of an absolutely horrible year.”

For more information go to dangerousactsfilm.com.

Dangerous Acts starring the Ubstable Elements of Belarus is directed and produced by Madeleine Sackler; executive producer, Andrea Meditch; associate producer, Leigh Johnson; edited by Anne Barliant and Leigh Johnson; original music, Wendy Blackstone; directors of photography, Daniel Carter and Larissa Kabernik. For HBO: supervising producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.

HBO playdates: July 7 (4:50 a.m., 9:00 p.m.), 9 (11:30 a.m.), 10 (2:15 p.m.), 13 (4:15 p.m.), 16 (4:15 p.m.), 19 (10:30 a.m.) and 25 (4:45 a.m.)

HBO2 playdates: July 8 (8:00 p.m.), 17 (11:15 a.m., 4:40 a.m.) and 26 (12:15 p.m.)

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