Not just another theatrical performance, Unstable Elements acts to live
Screened at the 40th Seattle International Film Festival, Madeleine Sackler’s awesome, thrilling and beautiful biopic of the underground theatrical group “Unstable Elements of Belarus” is part nail biting spy story and part inspirational political performance art. The Unstable Elements performs theatrical productions critical of the dictatorship ruling the Republic of Belarus. The primary subject of many of the groups’ theatrical attacks on sham democracy is strongman president Alexander Lukashenko. International watchdog groups hold his regime responsible for hundreds of instances of murder and torture and hundreds of persons who have disappeared without a trace.
The December 2010 presidential election reelected Lukashenko to a fourth straight term with nearly 80% of the vote. The runner-up opposition leader Andrei Sannikov received less than 3% of the vote. The election is widely considered to have involved fraud. In the course of the film’s interviews with the members of the theatrical group one tells the following revealing joke, passed around on the internet and mouth-to-mouth through Belarus society.
The president’s top political advisor meets with him the day after the election, to review the results. The advisor says, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you have been reelected president. The bad news is that nobody voted for you.”
Such is life in Belarus. Of course, such is life in many places in the world. There are those who say that life in the USA and other developed countries is not much different. The angst, horror and call to arms that is the group’s trademark is a strident, no-holds-barred challenge to the merciless, totally committed Lukashenko regime. When you play games with Alex, you play for keeps. The plays also have a marked anti-technology strain to them, as if the technology of thought control is part and parcel of the modern strategy control by the ruling class. These are dangerous acts for any regime, in the East or the West.
The productions have a marvelously stirring desperation to them, like the choreography of Philippina “Pina” Bausch (27 July 1940 – 30 June 2009). Bausch was a German modern dance performer, choreographer, dance teacher and ballet director who suffused her work with rigid mechanical movements of the performers. Her backdrops included large technological institutions such as subway trains. Her themes were the destruction of order and the blind chaos that accompanies mankind’s final descent into dictatorial terror.
The Dangerous Acts scenarios are abstract, Spartan and screaming. There are few props and even fewer taboos about performing nude and reenacting the vilest acts of torture and terror. One of the lines is something to the effect that the future that awaits dissidents, especially artistic, performing dissidents, makes imprisonment by Hitler’s Gestapo look like grade school.
Part of the film is shot in Belarus and part of New York City, after the troupe escaped their home country and was granted asylum in the USA. The shots in Belarus are framed in blowing snow and lethally cold wind and scattered ice. The backdrop for the group’s day-to-day survival is a political environment that is as cold as the brutal weather of the north. If even the most marginal support is withdrawn at a certain time, death follows quickly. The shots in New York City are no warmer. Although the group has obtained at least temporary asylum, they are foreigners there and their work is just one plea for exposure amongst the throng.
Some of the group stays in NYC and the rest return to a dangerous and uncertain future in their home country. Every day they walk out in the street and greet people who have come to see their vibrant statements against the regime. They never know if they have invited in a government spy who is collecting evidence for their trial and imprisonment, or their disappearance. They have no choice but to speak out, and speak out loudly. They can never rest; their continued, unavoidable presence is the only thing that keeps them alive.