Tuesday, April 1, 2014

My Log 419 April 1 2014: Superb theatre group in Minsk, Belarus, works under severe censorship of authoritarian Lukashenko government

English: The logo for the Cinema Politica netw...
English: The logo for the Cinema Politica network. http://cinemapolitica.org (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko
English: President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Natalia Koliada in New York City. Jan...
Natalia Koliada, one of the actors, in New York City. January 19, 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Political dissenters have discovered in almost every type of society on earth that if you want to attract the hostility of the security apparatus of the state, you should mount a theatrical performance of some kind. This seems to be true wherever you live. Even in what are called western democracies there is a long history of censorship of the theatre, much of it based on moral issues, but much on political grounds as well.  I remember in my own lifetime the ludicrous lengths to which, as recently as the 1960s,  the Lord Chamberlain, the responsible official in Britain, would go in his censorship of theatrical scripts. And, of course, the trials and tribulations of performers like Lenny Bruce (and a multitude of others) in the United States are fresh in the minds of those who cherish comic genius.
That this censorship of live performance is alive and well in Eastern Europe is well-known.  The most recent example has been the imprisonment in Russia of the so-called musical group Pussy Riot, three amazingly courageous girls who are really street activists disguising themselves as a musical group , and whose greatest performance, to my mind, came when they emerged after a year of imprisonment, shouting, “Putin Must go!” or words to that effect, at the very doors of the prison. They seem determined not to be silenced.
One of the more effective dissident groups to have emerged in recent years is a group of eight people who call themselves the Belarus Free Theatre, about whom the American film-maker Madeleine Sackler has made a gripping and inspiring activist film called Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus
that was the penultimate screening of the most recent season of the admirable Cinema Politica at Concordia University. 
The film takes up the story just before the 2010 election in Belarus, won by an evidently rigged  80 per cent vote by Alexander Lukashenko, the last dictator in Europe, as he is sometimes called. The theatre group works illegally, in that it has no licence or permit from the state, so they live in expectation of meeting interference from the state, and have to gather their audiences more or less secretly. Twice, in the film, people are shown standing  around in the street in small groups before being contacted by a representative of the theatre, who then leads them to the small room in which they perform.
Their subject matter, frankly, is the repressive apparatus of state power, and under the imaginative leadership of a man called Vladimir Scherban, they have invented some remarkably effective symbolic ways of representing it.  The group makes no secret of their links to, and support of opposition political leaders, especially the front runner in the election Andei Sannikov. Following the election, people who were outraged by the fixed result took to the streets in their thousands, peacefully, until they were charged, beaten, and hundreds of them, including opposition politicians, even Sannikov himself, were arrested
This led to such an increase in the repression that several of the theatre group’s leading members were visited by the secret police, and are today facing criminal charges, and they decided that rather than face  years of imprisonment, they had better go into exile.
They managed to get to emerged in New York, where they mounted their show and won an Obie award for Off-Broadway productions.
Nevertheless, working in exile did not satisfy them: “How can we say we are a Belarus Free Theatre when we are not even able to perform in Belarus,” one of them asked. Several of the actors had left children behind, and they decided to return, leaving others behind. These others went to Britain, where they became one of the 21,000 groups to perform at that year’s Edinburgh festival, once again winning accolades for the power of their work.
Those who returned arrived in time to greet the release from imprisonment of Sannikov, and the film ends with the actors, under more pressure than ever before, once again greeting their audience in the streets and leading them to the small performance room.
That the repression in Belarus is extremely violent is one of the messages of the film, which, however, also carries the message that it cannot last, that eventually they will gain their freedom, which will mean they are free to work as performers in the way they wish.
It is somewhat piquant to have to report that the Cinema Politica group itself seems not to be valued as it should be by Concordia University.  Although I doubt that there is any other group in Concordia which so admirably fulfils the wish of every University to establish strong roots with the local community --- their screenings each week attract hundreds of people from inside and outside the University --- they have been shuffled from pillar to post, from one screening theatre to another because other groups appear to have been given priority over them.  Their first theatre of choice is under reconstruction, but their second, also in the main university building, was given to a small theatre group for the last two weeks, forcing the film group to set up their screenings in the student’s lounge. Though they were grateful for the use of the space, it could not be described as satisfactory, providing only flat seating that made it difficult, not to say almost impossible, for the audience to see the many sub-titles.
Since the motto of the group is “screening truth to power” --- which it has been doing successfully for ten years --- one is left to wonder whether this lack of respect for their screenings might not hide an establishment distaste for the radicalism of most of the fare the group  produces for their student audiences.

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