Minsk, Belarus. Members of the Belarus Free Theatre limber up before a performance. “Life under a dictatorship is very easy,” says Oleg Sidorchik, one of the troupe’s lead actors. “There’s no need to make decisions, and there are no problems." Oleg’s remarks belie his reality: he’s become a political refugee, the Free Theatre lost their home base in 2011, and the group is now staging secret shows in a tiny subterranean space with cracked paint and plank seating. BFT co-founder Natalia Kaliada is undeterred. “Even when none of us knew what would be happening next,” she says, “it was possible to make art out of an absolutely horrible year.” Audiences now get word of upcoming shows via a text message, and are urged to bring their passports in the event of a police raid. About 30 or so people cram into the space to see Oleg perform “Zone of Silence: Sunday Father,” a moving real-life piece about how his 10-year-old son hung himself.

In 2010, Natalia and her fellow troupe members held out hope that a general election would lead to the ouster of longtime Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko, whose authoritarian regime began after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and who is considered to be Europe’s only remaining dictator. The BFT’s candidate of choice (a personal friend) was Andrei Sannikov, who enjoyed widespread public support and was one of nine candidates who ran against the incumbent. To the dismay of nearly everyone outside his inner circle, Lukashenko was re-elected. “The good news is, you're president again,” goes the joke. “The bad news is, no one voted for you.” Protests sprang up in the election’s aftermath, police used billy clubs to disperse gatherings, and Sannikov ended up going to jail on trumped-up charges.

In the face of continued harassment and/or imprisonment, Oleg, Natalia and her co-founders Nicolai Khalezin and Vladimir Shcherban head to NYC, where they arrange for a wildly successful Public Theatre performance of “Being Harold Pinter” by the entire troupe, which features projected translations of the dialogue for English-speaking audiences.

Five months after Lukashenko’s reelection, cast members Maryna and Yana (who has a young daughter back home) return to Minsk, while Oleg, Nicolai, Natalie and Vladimir head to the U.K. in search of asylum. As the Minsk remnant witness yet another brutal police response to a peaceful protest – this one involving people who do nothing more than clap their hands and smile – BFT members in the U.K. arrange for the troupe to stage the world premiere of “Minsk 2011” at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The performance, complete with a shattering finale starring a stripped-down Yana, wins a prize but, as Natalia explains, “The problems don’t disappear because of that.” In a monologue in which he
puts a match to a paper airplane, Oleg notes, “I think that despite great difficulties, we, the citizens, must demonstrate firm persistent determination, and establish the truth about our lives and society. That is our duty.”

Despite their international success, the Belarus Free Theatre continues to receive a chilly reception from authorities in Minsk. We learn that their defeated candidate, Sannikov, was released from prison on April 14, 2012. Natalia, Nicolai, Vladimir and Oleg received political asylum in London; they continue to work with the actors in Minsk via Skype. In countries where the theatre is free to perform, the entire troupe tours together as the Belarus Free Theatre.

Credits: Directed and produced by Madeleine Sackler; executive producer, Andrea Meditch; associate producer, Leigh Johnson; edited by Anne Barliant and Leigh Johnson; original music, Wendy Blackstone; directors of photography, Daniel Carter and Larissa Kabernik. For HBO: supervising producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.

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