What are these “Unstable Elements” and why are they lurking in Belarus? Are they housed in nuclear warheads misappropriated after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Is there a race against time to avoid a catastrophic meltdown? Are we embarking on a post-Cold War thriller where the reality is stranger than fiction? How can these elements star in their own documentary when they are rapidly decaying? Does the KGB know just how dangerous they are?
The decay featured in Madeline Sackler’s latest documentary is insidious and moral-not radioactive, although it is toxic. The “Unstable Elements” are the Belarusian people, anyone who questions Alexander Lukashenko’s totalitarian regime dubbed “the Last Dictatorship in Europe.” More specifically Sackler’s film centres on the remarkable group of actors and artistic directors who make up the Belarus Free Theatre, an underground troupe who inject their performances with seditious material outlawed by censorship and brutal repression.
Founded by Nikolai Khalezin and his wife Natalia Koliada, the Belarus Free Theatre operates illegally inside Minsk, openly criticising Lukashenko’s government despite the chilling prospect of becoming one of the increasing number of “Enforced Disappeared.” When we first meet the actors we watch them perform a surreal account of the crackdown of pro-democracy protestors in October Square, after the disputed presidential election on 19th December 2010. Lukashenko claimed nearly 80% of the vote, famously saying, “No-one will be at the square.” The Free Theatre use balloons to re-enact marching troops and gunfire.
Sackler expertly morphs this performance into a montage of horrific images from that fateful night where the hopes of freedom were dashed upon the shields and batons of Lukashenko’s security forces, young hulking men with skin heads and quick hands, snatching protestors into black armoured vans. This violence further highlights the risks that the Free Theatre endures just to reach their audience. Tickets are sold illegally through the Internet and the audience are met and taken to secret locations to experience their art. Imagine the 1980s M25 rave scene but with the very real possibility of paying for your pleasure with your life.
During the aftermath of the rigged elections the Free Theatre are forced to flee the country due to their close affiliation with the imprisoned presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov. Sackler tracks the exiles to New York where they wow the Off-Broadway scene with their experimental play, “Being Harold Pinter” full of suffocating plastic sheets and hard hitting scenes of torture and humiliation. One of the actors, Maryna, is tagged “Sorceress of the Stage” by The New York Times and momentarily seems to have her head turned by the adulation, a political actor as seemingly vulnerable to a good review as any other.
Madeline Sackler’s film is utterly captivating as art and activism are blurred into a fight for survival of the physical and spiritual self. However the grand statements–“life under a dictatorship is not hard. Life under a dictatorship is easy…there is no need to make decisions”–and electric stage presences are secondary to the more subtle touches of this documentary. In a Minsk park school children play a game of handcuffing and execution and in Great Britain, the home of modern democracy, the Free Theatre hold a small rally and can’t understand why most people just walk past and ignore their plight. One day the Belarusian people will be free to enjoy the right to put their heads down and scurry past freedom demonstrators in rush hour, too. Until that time comes we need to support these “Unstable Elements,” and stop their children from acting out atrocities under a tree in a park.