June 25, 2018

London Human Rights Watch Film Festival starts with premiere of @DangerousActs

Should we boycott the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championships held in Belarus?

The UK isn’t taking part in the 2014 Minsk Ice Hockey World Championships. This could be painted as a brave unilateral decision to boycott – but actually we didn’t qualify. For those nations that are scheduled to play the question Should they boycott arose during a Q&A session after the opening film of the London Human Rights Watch Film Festival at the Curzon Soho.

Not just a festival of film-making, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival draws attention to human rights violations across the world. For more than thirty years Human Rights Watch has worked to investigate human rights abuses, expose wrong-doing and change policy and this continues through the films showing until 28th March at the Ritzy Brixton, the Barbican and Curzons Soho and Mayfair.

The film chosen for opening night was Dangerous Acts by Madeleine Sackler. This focuses on events in Belarus since 2010 and particularly on the experiences of a free theatre troupe called The Unstable Elements, founded by Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada. They are a group of eight actors who put on plays and performances which directly address daily issues that happen but are not mentioned in Belarus – issues that we in western democracies don’t experience – such as the governmental disappearance of people. The film makes clear that human rights violations are an everyday occurrence in the country.

Belarus is a land-locked country east of Poland which is known as Europe’s last dictatorship. It is suggested that its lack of natural resources means the outside world fails to find it sexy enough to intervene. The president Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for sixteen years. Rather than winning elections by appealing to the electorate, he takes the much simpler approach of rigging the polls. It is a highly repressive country where art plays a role with real immediacy and relevance.

This is a film whose value is in the message that it spreads around the world and the light it helps to shine on the situation in Belarus. It is shot in a standard documentary style, alternating footage of repression, archive footage of the president, interviews with the actors and sequences showing their lives and performances. Their style appears to be an absurdist performance art, which goes down well with the audiences.

With the secret police raiding the theatre and opposition leaders being locked up for being, well, opposition leaders, director Madeleine Sackler did not risk traveling to Belarus. Instead the shots from inside the country were filmed by a local camera operator whose images were smuggled out of the country every two months. The footage from Belarus shows the violence of police repression and the poverty of resources at the disposal of the actors. It also shows the popularity of their shows and the packed audiences to which they play.

The difficulties of life under continual governmental harassment is made clear. Several scenes of people talking to their families back home on Skype personalise the issues – the tears rolling down an exiled woman’s face as she talk to her family Belarus, increasing the drama.

After the premiere the director and actor Oleg Sidorchik took part in a question and answer session. Madeleine is visiting from the States, whilst Oleg is unable to rejoin his colleagues in the troupe and is a political refugee in England. He was asked if the World Ice Hockey Championship to be held in Minsk should be boycotted. Noting that Lukashenko had an ice hockey fixation and though the situation in Belarus was ‘very far from decent, let alone good’, was building virtually unused ice hockey stadia around the country, he was for a boycott.

Dangerous Acts is an engrossing look at a way of life that is hard to imagine for westerners. It is particularly pertinent as the situation is ongoing. Hopefully it can make a positive difference to opinion, although how its effects will be felt by the actors still in Belarus is unclear. Like the arts it focuses on, Dangerous Acts has an immediacy and relevance and is definitely worth watching to gain an insight into the struggle for artistic integrity and general freedoms that we often take for granted.

If you want to help or find out more about the situation in Belarus then visit the Dangerous Acts Facebook page here.

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