Madeleine Sackler is back in the director’s chair with her frank and hard-hitting new documentary Dangerous Acts: which focuses on the oppressive and repressive regime in Belarus.
We caught up with the director to chat about the film, the challenges of filming in Belarus, and what lies ahead.
- Dangerous Acts is the new film, so can you tell me a little bit about it?
The film is about an underground theatre group, which is illegal in Belarus. We follow them through a rigged election and violent crackdown, which forced them to flee the country.
We worked to bring together their theatre and footage that we smuggled out of country of life in Belarus, which we have never really seen; at least not in the way that we have tried to film it.
- You are in the director's chair for the film, so where did this project start for you? And how did you find out about this story and these people?
I met the Free Theatre, which travels a lot. They are not allowed to sell tickets in Belarus because they can be charged with an economic crime, so one of the only ways that they can make money - they are all also blacklisted and so it is difficult to get other work in Belarus - is by travelling.
I met them in New York in June 2010, which was about six months before the rigged election and the violent crackdown that happened at the end of that year. The Free Theatre is close with one of the leading opposition candidates Andrei Sannikov: this, combined with their work in the theatre, meant that they were being targeted by the KGB and meant that they had to flee the country.
That turned the film in a different direction to when we had started, and it became the story of them being separated during that year.
- What was it about their story and their plight that sparked your interest?
To be honest, I really didn’t know much at all about the situation in Belarus. It is a very simple story as they are just a group of people who are trying to make new and original art - theatre in their case - and they are not allowed; not only are they not allowed, but they have been arrested and the KGB has raided their theatre several times.
Their audiences are filmed, so that they can keep track of who is coming to see them. The level of repression was really surprising to me, and the fact that this is happening in Europe. I was just curious about why I didn’t know about it, and who these people were and what their experience was like, was interesting to me.
- As you have said you didn’t know much about what was going on in Belarus - I didn’t know anything about it before I watched the film either. How widespread have you found this ignorance?
I have never tried to quantify it. By and large, the reaction that I get from people who have seen the film so far, is one of surprise that this happening in 2014. Of course, what is now going on in Ukraine is extending the interest that people do have in the region and provides some context for people about Belarus.
If you are curious that why Ukraine is the way that it is and what a regime like that is like, I think the film does provide that insight. As you see in the film, Belarus doesn’t have much to offer the West; it doesn’t have oil or big industry from investors or governments to care much about.
I think it why it is not represented much in the media and it may also be why international authorities have allowed Lukashenko to exist for so long; he is now one of the longest serving leaders and has been there for twenty years. Twenty years is a long time, and a whole generation has grown up with the same ‘President’. I think that that is surprising to many people.
- When you met the theatre group in New York, how keen were they to get on board and have their say on film? How aware were you and they of the dangers that that could potentially pose for them?
We were really concerned about the danger. It’s not explicit there - that’s part of the problem - and so you can’t get in front of it because it is not normal law. You don’t really know what you are circumventing, and it changes all of the time. Therefore, we took a very conservative approach.
I don’t speak Russian, and they have had people turned around at the boarder quite a bit. Therefore, I decided to work over Skype with a local cinematographer, who had accreditation from the state to own a camera: there are not many people who own HD cameras in Belarus. We found one who did and was interesting in working with us.
We really did rely very heavily on modern technology to make the film. It also became a necessity; because half of the group was in exile, someone had to be filming them whilst someone else was filming in Belarus. It became very convenient as it meant that we could both be filming at the same time, but I could still have a look at what they were filming.
- How difficult was it to get the footage out of the country?
We learned that we could drive hard-drives out of the country. Many of the boarders are still open, and the cinematographer was very conscious if we shipped the hard-drive, it would most likely be confiscated. So she helped us by driving them over the open boards and shipping them every few months from there.
Also, backing them up on to many copies and storing them under different people’s beds: there’s a lot of this footage running around the world (laughs). We would get it every few months, translate it, and edit.
-What was it like for you as a director to not be on set and have to sit and watch in a way?
It was learning process. The first hard-drive that we got totally terrified me because it was unusable. It was shot in the style that most DP’s shoot over there, and that is for the news; so little segments turning the camera off and on. Essentially, it is just like little clips: which are not usable when you are trying to create a narrative, story and characters.
That sparked a series of conversations over Skype with here, where I described what an establishing shot is for, cut-aways, shooting over the shoulder and shooting from different angles so it can be cut together to make a narrative film. It was really interesting. She was amazing, and it almost became her own art project.
She shot beautiful footage of the country that you don’t really see: partly because of the repression and partly because people don’t have the ability to make movies there.
- There are quite a lot of people in the Free Theatre group, but there are a couple that you focus on in particular. Can you talk a bit about how you chose those to centre on?
It was really hard. A lot of it comes down to who is comfortable being filmed. There were people in the troop early on that I wanted to feature, but they just weren’t really that comfortable having the camera around.
We wanted to show different experiences, so there is a single mother, a young woman who is not married and has no kids; there is an older couple with a teenage daughter, and then an older actor as well. We say that this is a film about the Belarus Free Theatre, but it isn’t, it is a film about these experiences of these four people. The connection between them is the theatre, but it’s really more about their personal experiences that relates to the country.
- They are really quite frank to be what it is like to be in Belarus at this time under this regime. Were they more than happy to come out and say it as it was?
Yeah. If you have seen their theatre, it is not only frank - some of it is very quite, sensitive and personal - but some of it is very loud and in your face and there is nudity, swearing and sex; these things in Belarus are aggressively censored.
For them to talk to me about this stuff was no stretch at all. It is what they do all day; they have made the choice to do that despite the repercussions.
- Can you talk a bit about the editing process? You mix interviews, live performances, footage form Belarus and footage from America. How did you manage to cut all that together to make a cohesive story?
This was a really hard film to edit, mainly because the story changed so much over a time: that makes it really hard that you are capturing all of the pieces that you need. This is not a film where you can go and get pick-ups later to fill in the gaps. You get things as they happen, they are live and happening in Russian, and then you have what you have in the edit room. The only constraint that I gave myself in the shoot was capping it at a year.
I knew that I wasn’t going to shoot until Lukashenko fell, and so it had to be a moment in time: so I decided to make it the year around the election. That hadn’t been true in the very beginning, and so we have to craft and carve that through the temporal constraint in the narrative. It was really hard.
There are a lot of people and a lot of places, and it is hard to make it clear where they are at a given time as we are jumping around a lot. However, no on seems to be confused, so hopefully we have done out job (laughs).
- You have slightly touched on my next question. I was wondering how much the story was constructed during the edit? And how much did the story change from the initial idea you had for the film to what we see on screen?
It changed completely. There are glimpses of the original plan in the film; there opening of the film, where we cut between the theatre bringing to life what it feels like to be near an army when they are marching by and being on the streets during violence. We moved between that and our smuggled footage of violent protests. That had been the initial idea for the entire film, and not just little segments.
We wanted to use the theatre piece as a backbone for the whole movie, and move in and out of real life from there seamlessly. Once the group ended up exiled from the country and from each other, the story changed dramatically and became much more about this moment in time.
- The movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year, so how did you find the festival experience? And how have you found people’s response to the film so far?
So far, the film has screened in Toronto, Amsterdam and Oslo. So far, the reactions have been great. The main reaction that I get is surprise; I think people are surprised by being moved by the experience of these people. It is really relatable because everyone has families and people that we love. It is very easy to forget what home means and I think this film evokes the importance of your home.
We might feel like it is easy to leave a repressive place - it seems obvious that you would want to be somewhere else - but you are not really taking into account where you are from and the things that you recognise. I think people are connected to the story, in a good way. Mostly they are surprised about how bad the situation in there.
- What do you hope audiences will take away when they see the film?
There are two things. Firstly, that this is happening and it is not just Belarus: which is now becoming increasingly clear. And it does matter to us. What is happening in Ukraine is exposing the danger of Lukashenko subsist. It also exposes a lot of Russia’s true motives and the way that the West is willing to engage with those motives. It is a scary time.
The second thing is remembering the good things of where we are - it does sound cliché - but not taking them for granted. The fact is, I wouldn’t have been able to make this film in Belarus, and I am lucky to be able to do that. Hopefully, the combination of the first and second thing will help more people think about that, talk about it, and do things.
Later today we are trying to promote crowd-funding platforms, which are donating to Ukrainian families that have been affected by deaths - murders really - during the protests there. That campaign will change over time because the situation is really fluid. Hopefully, the film can be a platform for people to find a little inroad for them to be involved.
- Finally, what is next for you?
I am working on this for the next few months. I have a few projects in development. I have recently produced a short film - a narrative film. There are a couple of scripts and a couple of documentaries that I am working on so will see which gets finished first; it really is the race of the projects.
- Are you going to balance narrative/live action and documentary projects going forward?
Yeah. I really love making documentaries and I really love telling stories, and I think that there are benefits to both. I like working all different part of my brain as much as I can (laughs).
Dangerous Acts is released 28th March.