Madeleine shared with us her journey in getting this film made, confronting the opening and closing challenges of documentary filmmaking, art as a means to counter repression and the human need to be true to oneself as well as the unexpected evolution of Dangerous Acts.
Why a career in documentary filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?
This is my third documentary, and I started off as an editor working in film, television and commercials. I’d always wanted to make a film but I was waiting for the right moment as well as the right story. I was most excited by stories that were narrative based, and I was agnostic as to whether it would be documentary or fiction. The first story I came across that I just had to tell only happened to be a documentary. I had always loved editing documentaries because it is like writing, and because I enjoy writing and telling stories I happened to love it.
I hadn’t gone to film school and so the first film was just sort of a test. Of course I didn’t think anyone would ever see it, but afterwards I wanted to continue. Now I am working on a mix of things which include documentaries, screenplays and short films, but I feel lucky because I fell into it in a way.
One line of thought amongst filmmakers is that editing is the best training for an aspiring director. Would you agree?
I totally agree, and it is twofold. First of all and especially in a documentary you are crafting a lot of the story, and you are also able to see what you cannot make up for later. I have worked on a lot of projects and there are always mistakes that are made. But you can see the ones that you cannot fix in the edit, and you can see the things that are expertly done by people. As an editor you are often watching hundreds of hours of footage, and a lot of it will often be interviews. So you are listening to the styles of the different directors, watching the way in which they are directing the camera and the subjects, and because it is all uncut there is a lot on camera that you are seeing and learning from as you go. So if you have the patience for it then it’s an incredible way to start. For me it was just luck since I didn’t go to film school; instead I had studied bio-psychology. I was thinking about doing research, and I just wanted to work for a few years. I had enjoyed editing for a school project for fun, and had kind of taught myself. So whilst I just happened to fall into it, I would completely agree that it’s the best place to start.
Dangerous Acts begins with the statement that living under a dictatorship “isn’t difficult, it is very easy.” From the opening moments you are challenging our preconceptions of dictatorships as this tough, hard and oppressive force that people are forced to endure.
Well for me that is one of the most interesting parts about making a documentary. One of the challenges is often you are spending time with people who might be described as exceptional, but ultimately they are just everyday people. The more time you spend with them then the more you realise that they get up, get dressed, worry about their kids and have many of the same values and encounter almost all of the same activities as the rest of us.
My first film The Lottery was about ordinary people, but the trick is how do you show what makes them who they are? Even though all of us are connected by so many similarities, we also have our own perspectives and experiences that make us who we are. So trying to draw that out whether it is about a dictatorship or the art that someone wants to make or the dreams they have for their kids is the challenge at hand. In the end that is what is going to expose you to a different world.
I struggled a lot with the opening of this film, and we must have cut and recut… I wish you could talk to my editors who would actually know the number because it was becoming pretty brutal. For most of the film we left it without a beginning, but for a documentary the beginning and the end are always the hardest parts; more so the beginning because you often leave it to last. I’m glad to hear you thought it worked because it was tough, but it was definitely what we were trying to do with it.
From the start you look at how creative importance can emerge from the darkest and most oppressive of places, in which art functions as a means to access that time and place by creating a record.
Many people in the Belarusian Free Theatre had the opportunity to make art legally, which is a crazy thing to say if that even makes any sense? Not all of them but many of them – Oleg, Yana, and Maryna were all professionally trained and working in the state theatre. So it’s more than just creative expression that people crave, it’s the ability to express yourself truthfully. I know that sounds cliché but it must be true if this is the experience of all of these people in the film. You see it happening around the world and there must be something about humans that makes them feel terrible when they exist in a lie. There is that fundamental discordance for people that basically causes this break where they do things that you or I might think are crazy – maybe your kids are at risk or you are black listed and you can’t work. You can’t make money or you have to flee the country just because of that human tendency or human need. So there are a lot of ways that people deal with that and this was just one. So that’s why I was interested in the film.But there are other ways. There are underground journalists and there are people who will do very small things, such as likeminded groups of people who behind closed doors can talk about how they actually feel about things. There are lots of ways to express that need, but art is an important one. In a way I feel that the Free Theatre recreated the original value of theatre because they were journalists, filmmakers or artists. When theatre is live there is nothing that remains afterwards – it’s just words. They have been able to navigate repression with the theatrical experience; to communicate their own truths in person. The best way to communicate something is by telling a great story, and so in a way they piece together how theatre came about in the first place, which is interesting.
Creative people have a tendency to reflect that need more than most, despite its presence in all of us.
I almost hate saying it, but like so many themes in this film that are difficult for me to talk about because they feel so hackneyed, it is so hard for us to understand when we are able to wake up and think what we want to think, say what we want to say, watch the movies we want to watch, read the books we want to read, and live in a place where Chekov isn’t censored like it is in Belarus. It is so hard to relate to that experience, and that’s what I was hoping to try and bring across in the smallest way in the film, that it isn’t a clichéd thing to say that we all strive to say what we think or believe what we believe. But unfortunately we don’t yet live in a world where that is overused. It is still something that we are lucky to have. So anyway I find it a little hard to talk about it here, but it is a reality for people all over the world.
It acts as reminder because we don’t necessarily appreciate the freedom that we have, whereas the people who are without freedom are striving for even just a little and appreciate it for its raw concept. So with this film you are looking into Belarus but you are also looking back at the free world.
I hate to be moralistic in any way or preachy, but it is true. Again some of these fundamental things about what makes a human, and the things that we want whether it’s for our kids, for ourselves, for the future of a country or more broadly the people, they have been persistent throughout history. There is nothing really random about them. They are universal truths and rights and it is easy to forget where they came from. But they are not accidental.
Why this film and why now?
In a way every documentary is random. You meet the people or the subject matter occurs to you when it does. In our case I met the Free Theatre in June of 2010 when I was releasing my first film. I filmed with them that summer, and then the rigged election and the violent crackdown by the KGB happened in December. I was interested in the fact that there plays were all theatrical representations of reality, and it’s all very biographical and autobiographical. So I was thinking of combining that with documentary filmmaking – reality and cinéma vérité footage of the things that you are seeing on stage, but are really on the ground. The idea was to move back and forth between those two worlds by using a play as a backbone. But as is often the case with documentaries that is not the story we ended up having access to, because on January 1st they fled the country. It became much more about exile and the experience of the country in the year 2011, but just through a few of the people. So what drew me to it initially didn’t end up being the film that I was able to make, but nevertheless you have what you have when it is real life.
Film is a journey, so from before to after how has the project informed you, changed your perspective and impacted you both personally and professionally?
In so many ways that it is hard to drill it down into one or even one the most important, because it is such a long journey. I am almost four years older than when I started it, and I made another film in the meantime. It was a hard film to make logistically but also emotionally. Belarus is not something people are naturally inclined to care about, and so I knew it was going to be a heavy lift from the beginning. But now with what’s happening in the Ukraine, it’s changing the whole landscape of how you watch the film, and it’s continuing to change. We are continuing to think about how we can use the film more broadly, and we are trying to find tangible things for people to do after seeing it. For now it is going to be supporting some crowd funding campaigns for the families of victims in the Ukraine who have been killed. When the film comes out in the States in three months or so it will be something different. But this has been an interesting one because it’s evolving so rapidly, and we are all trying to keep up and understand the long term relevance of the story that we happened upon accidentally.
Dangerous Acts is released on March 28th.