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Toronto Film Review: ‘Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus’

Madeleine Sackler's engrossing documentary chronicles upheaval in 'the last dictatorship in Europe' through the viewpoint of an underground theater company.

With:

Pavel Gorodnickij, Nicolai Khalezin, Natalia Kaliada, Tatyana Mikhailovna Kaliada, Andrei Andreevich Kaliada, Andrei Sannikov, Oleg Sidorchik,  Vladimir Shcherban, Yana Rusakevich, Maryna Yurevich. (Belarusian, Russian, English dialogue)

“Life in a dictatorship is very easy … there are no decisions to make,” says one interviewee at the start of “Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus.” When citizens noisily began insisting on making their own political decisions, “the last dictatorship in Europe” responded with a brutal crackdown on dissent. Madeleine Sackler’s documentary chronicles this still-in-progress struggle through the viewpoint of an underground theater company whose opposition support does not go unnoticed by the ruling regime. Skedded for HBO debut next year, the engrossing pic should pick up further tube sales globally.

Belarus Free Theater had already operated for five years — albeit without a government license, meaning charging admission could get its members arrested for “illegal economic activity” — before the events of December 2010. When now two-decade president Alexander Lukashenko then claimed another landslide re-election victory, many decried it as blatant fraud. Thousands of peaceful protestors crowded Minsk’s central square, then were violently dispersed by troops in full riot gear. Among mass arrests, known opposition leaders and candidates (including frontrunner Andrei Sannikov) were imprisoned on dubious charges.

BFT’s own eight members were smuggled out of the country, certain they’d be swept into custody along with all other dissenting voices. They landed in Manhattan, where they won raves and an Obie for a sold-out run at prestigious Off Broadway venue La Mama. But nearly all had left spouses and/or children behind. Some eventually headed home while others (who had criminal warrants waiting for them in Belarus) applied for political asylum in England while trying to keep their art and activism alive.

Seen out of context, excerpts from the troupe’s avant-garde shows intrigue but prove less interesting than than the offstage personal dramas and on-the-street witness footage on tap. (All Belarus-shot video here had to be secretly transported out of the country.) A subsequent brief uprising sparked by economic crisis only confirmed Lukashenko & Co.’s continued willingness to squash opposition by any means.

Brisk package is well handled in technical departments.

Popular on Variety

Toronto Film Review: 'Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs), Sept. 15, 2013. Running time: 76 MIN.

Production:

(Documentary) An HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Great Curve Films production in association with Back Allie Entertainment and Chicken & Egg Pictures. (International sales: Dogwoof, London.) Produced by Madeleine Sackler. Executive producer, Andrea Medich.

Crew:

Directed by Madeleine Sackler. Camera (color, HD), Daniel Carter, Gerard Smith; editors, Anne Barliant, Leigh Johnson; music, Wendy Blackstone; sound, Gabe Cyr, Mike Gassert, Nico Mazet, Mikhail Sterkin, Matt Sutton, Simon Batchelar; supervising sound editor, Steve Borne; re-recording mixer, Matt Decker.

With:

Pavel Gorodnickij, Nicolai Khalezin, Natalia Kaliada, Tatyana Mikhailovna Kaliada, Andrei Andreevich Kaliada, Andrei Sannikov, Oleg Sidorchik,  Vladimir Shcherban, Yana Rusakevich, Maryna Yurevich. (Belarusian, Russian, English dialogue)

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