Acting out: New documentary follows artistic resistance to ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’

Karen Travers, Richard Coolidge, Alexandra Dukakis, and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

Power Players

In Belarus, the former Soviet country commonly dubbed as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” uncensored art is considered a crime.

But a group of actors – arming themselves only with a stage and a script with a political message – has dared to act out against the repressive two-decades-long reign of President Alexander Lukashenko and are the subject of a new HBO documentary “Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus,” set to premier on July 7.

“I was struck when I heard the story of the Belarus Free Theater who are operating illegally in Belarus and all they're trying to do is create art,” the film’s director and producer Madeleine Sackler told “Power Players.” “It's considered an economic crime for them to sell tickets – their audience members are videotaped by the KGB as they're coming in to see performances.”

As a price for their resistance, the actors of Belarus Free Theater risk their livelihood. They are blacklisted from ever holding a job in the country, where 70 percent of jobs are state-run.

“What you find is that people I think are very afraid of … other people in the country who might be rocking the boat because they're really looking to hold on to their jobs and the stability of the region,” she said.

And the actors also risk their very lives.

“I met them when they were rehearsing a new performance in the summer of 2010, which was about six months before another rigged election and violent crackdown … which precipitated their fleeing the country,” Sackler said, noting that many of the actors now live in exile from Belarus.

Given the safety risks bounding both the actors and the documentary team, Sackler developed a creative means of getting uncensored opinions out of Belarus: Skype.

“Very early on we were extremely concerned about security, so we developed this technique of actually working entirely remotely using Skype,” she explained. “We had an underground cinematographer in Belarus who had state accreditation to own a camera, and then she would use webcams over Skype and could actually open up the computer and we could do an interview. … I would be in New York and she would be in Minsk.”

The cinematographer also smuggled footage across the borders of Belarus to countries where it could be shipped to New York without fear of tampering, willingly putting herself at risk all the while – a trait Sackler observed in many of the Belarusians she encountered.

“I think there are very few opportunities for people there to speak their mind and to be heard by the rest of the world and so what we found was that everybody who participated in this project very, very much wanted to be publicly associated with it,” Sackler said.

For more of the interview with Sackler, including what she forecasts for Belarus’ future, watch this episode of “Power Players.”

ABC News’ DJ Amerson, Beverly Simone, Sean Jackson, Wayne Boyd and David Girard contributed to this episode.