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Spotlight: Madeleine Sackler, Director, ‘Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus’

The director used smuggled footage and secret interviews to tell the story of a theater troupe creating uncensored art that is illegal in their country.

In Belarus, a country bordering Ukraine and Russia, creating “uncensored art” is considered by the government to be a criminal activity. The Belarus Free Theatre, an underground troupe of performers, refuses to remain silent. With Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus, director Madeleine Sackler created a film with smuggled cinema vérité footage and uncensored interviews with members of the theater troupe that offers a view of a resistance movement unfolding on the stage and in the streets. Dangerous Acts debuted at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and aired on HBO last month.

“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,” says 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.”

Madeleine Sackler.

How was the production of this film possible?

In January 2012, the theater company was forced to flee Belarus, and I realized that I had an opportunity to make a different kind of film, one that weaves together artistic versions of reality with reality itself.

While I filmed the theater members in New York and the U.K., I also found a cinematographer in Belarus who had state accreditation to own a camera, and I began directing her over Skype. Our work together resulted in hundreds of hours of cinema vérité footage that was smuggled out of the country—footage of families left behind, of the actors who risked returning to Minsk to try to re-establish the theater, and of everyday citizens who bravely showed up at ongoing protests against the regime.

The film developed into the story of this watershed year for both Belarus and for the Belarus Free Theatre as they navigated separation from their home and from each other and yet continued to make art about their experience. But it is a similar story to that of many people around the world—in both free and repressed countries—who act against the grain to do what they believe is right or simply to follow their passion regardless of its popularity.