Lee’s film yields a “complex and multilayered” account which she hopes will instruct her daughter, and future generations of girls, about the struggle that preceded them.
A stark monologue examines why there has been so little outrage about the human rights violations in their country. An actress states, “Belarus is not sexy. Sexy countries have oil and gas.”
For those existing in the cultural space, art and life are intrinsically entwined. Director Madeleine Sackler brings that home in her film Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus, recently featured as part of the HBO Documentaries series. Stack takes us to the Eastern European nation of Belarus to document how a troupe of actors have woven the material of their lives into their repertoire— while simultaneously committing acts of political rebellion under the watchful eyes of a despot.
I first became aware of the Belarus Free Theatre when they came to New York City to take part in the Under the Radar Festival. A glowing review in the New York Times brought them to the attention of the American theater-going public.
They have performed in forty-two countries around the world, received top awards, and the support of actor Jude Law and playwright Tom Stoppard. Yet the accolades pale next to the reality of familial separation, exile, government oversight and the dire situation of their homeland—referred to as “the last dictatorship in Europe.”
Sackler structures her movie on a timeline based in relationship to the 2010 December election in Belarus. The citizenry had hoped that challenges to strongman Aleksander Lukashenko and his sixteen years of uninterrupted totalitarian rule would be forthcoming. Instead, what resulted was a “rigged election,” violence against the populace, and retribution for the ten candidates who dared to offer an alternative.
The film intercuts on the ground sequences of demonstrations in Minsk—smuggled footage—with the theatrical works created and interpreted through the artistic prism.
We are introduced to the close-knit group of the Belarus Free Theatre. Founded in March 2005 by husband and wife team Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada—then joined by Vladimir Shcherban, the three are the nucleus whose creative insights have laid the foundation for the point of view, “Theater is in the moment…conveying truths in real time.”
Since the Belarus Free Theatre does not adhere to the party line, it operates outside of the state-sanctioned corridor. This means they are not registered with the government. Selling tickets is considered an “illegal economic activity,” which if discovered is punishable by imprisonment. The country’s KGB keeps tabs not only on the actors, but those attending performances (including journalists). As one member of the ensemble observed, “It’s censorship to the point of absurdity.” Yet, as they explain, “The goal is simple. To create a genuine reaction to what’s happening…quickly, honestly, freely.”
Subject matter for scripts is culled from topics that are deemed taboo and therefore “intentionally not discussed.” This puts the collective in direct conflict with “official ideology,” as it digs beneath the false national façade to examine politics, state repression, gender identity, alcoholism, and suicide. Narratives frequently reflect the private experiences of the actors. What results is visceral, raw material. In Zone of Silence, a divorced father’s son, regularly beaten with a belt by his stepfather, hangs himself. The grieving father takes emotional refuge in alcoholism. Personal tragedies co-exist in tandem with the national pathology—fear, that is devouring the population.
On December 19, 2010, when election results were falsified to award Lukashenko 79.67 percent of the vote, people of all ages congregated to call for change. Loudspeakers advised them to leave, as riot police dressed in black advanced behind full body shields. Rushing the crowd, beatings with nightsticks ensued as demonstrators were dragged to waiting wagons, bloodied from the assaults. Five of the candidates, including Andrei Sannikov, were arrested. Political parties were outlawed and 1,000 people were detained. Members of the Belarus Free Theatre were summoned for questioning. Surreptitiously, they escaped the country by crossing the border on New Year’s Eve.
One month, post-election, the troupe is in New York City to “draw attention to those who need attention drawn to their plight.” They perform Being Harold Pinter at La MaMa. In one sequence, the actors are trapped beneath and within a sheet of plastic, searching for a way out. The plight of “tortured artistic dissidents” and their unbowed quest for freedom is symbolized. Yet, “the search for truth never stops.” It is a powerful image audiences can empathize with. However, it may be impossible to fully fathom the depth of trauma in living under the boot in Belarus.
Five months, post-election, “trials” against the opposition candidates take place. Sannikov remains in prison, accused of “fomenting disorder.” More accurately, he had campaigned on the platform of building “a new normal European Belarus.” His wife is under house arrest. (Sannikov was released via pardon after serving 481 days in prison, frequently in solitary confinement.) Several of the actors have returned to Minsk, including single mother, Yana Rusakevich.
Nicoli and Natiala relocate to Great Britain, with their daughter, where Sannikov’s sister lives and they have received political asylum. Between them, there are five criminal cases pending against them in Belarus. Nicoli would be at jeopardy for receiving up to ten years in prison; Natiala would face up to seven. When Nicoli’s father dies, the pain of not being able to attend the funeral is palpable.
In England, Sannikov’s sister, joined by other activists, try to build public support and awareness of the situation in Belarus. They are recorded being ignored by the majority of hurried, passing pedestrians. One man stops to listen. He reveals that he was once arrested in Prague. “Evil occurs when good people do nothing,” he pronounces as he signs their petition.
Six months, post-election, the Belarus-based actors rehearse a piece. They turn their backs to the audience, to signify those who have disappeared. The blacklist has now grown to encompass those in the music field, along with other creatives.
When an economic crisis erupts, the populace is motivated to regroup. They gather to march silently. No words are used, simply clapping. Baffled authorities announce on loud speakers, “Dear Citizens, move along. Do not create clutter.” Trucks arrive and the goons are sent in. People are seized, including members of the press with credentials. The footage goes black as a hand obstructs the camera lens. It is noted, “You come out—and they take you.”
Eight months, post-election, the troupe gives a world premiere. It is a depiction of the most recent demonstrations. Each time an actor is removed from the stage by authority figures, two women with large brooms sweep the floor. What appears to be a viewer is pulled onstage, and then carried off—despite screams that she is a “journalist with accreditation.”
A stark monologue examines why there has been so little outrage about the human rights violations in their country. An actress states, “Belarus is not sexy. Sexy countries have oil and gas.” Enactments of the kind of torture visited upon male and female prisoners are also portrayed. It is heart stopping—both as theater and because it is clearly a mirror of actual acts.
Sackler worked in tandem with a “state accredited” cinematographer, who was given direction via Skype, to capture much of the Belarus based material. The result was several hundred hours of uncensored footage, which was then slipped out of the country. The documentation of street protests came from a combination of filmmakers and “citizen journalists.” Of primary concern was the safety of all involved with the production.
With a series of hot spots capturing the world’s attention, the hardships of living under the claustrophobic and brutal Belarusian regime of death squads, disappeared persons, and jailings has gone under the radar. Hopefully, this documentary will boost concern and ignite interest and support for those who are suffering.
Meanwhile, the Belarus Free Theatre will continue to push forward with their motivation to:
“Establish the truth about our lives and our society. This is our duty. Otherwise, there is no hope to restore what we have almost lost. Human dignity.”
Photos: Courtesy of HBO
The United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) recently met in Dallas to discuss how to move their cities forward in order to meet the challenges before them. Topics included energy related issues, the impact of pollution, and climate change. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy was on hand to take part in a panel, where she expressed how leaders could avoid the animosity surrounding climate change by stressing the related concerns of health, safety, and economics.
One of the leaders focusing on the environment and sustainability was Jim Brainard, the five-term mayor of Carmel, Indiana.
Brainard was tapped to be on President Obama’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. He won first place honors from the 2008 Mayor’s Climate Protection Awards Program. The most exciting news in his bio…he is a Republican!
I interviewed Brainard by telephone upon his return from USCM to learn more about the programs he has implemented, and to inquire about his response to the overwhelming number of Republicans who push back on environmental regulations while hoisting the banner of climate change denial.
Direct about the fact that the party of environmentalist Teddy Roosevelt has become entrenched in refuting the findings of the larger scientific community, Brainard said, “You have to trust 97 percent of scientists. There’s no question that the earth is warming. The numbers are what the numbers are.”
When I mentioned Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-OK) branch of the party, Brainard suggested that he was “out-shouting” more moderate Republicans. He emphasized, “The Republican party needs to recognize that people in the United States want a clean environment for themselves and their descendants.”
Underscoring the non-partisan attitude that he saw prevailing in Dallas, Brainard informed me, “Everyone’s concerned about their city.”
Currently, Brainard serves as the co-chair of the Energy Independence and Climate Protection Task Force for the USCM. He has also signed their Climate Protection Agreement, which sets goals to “meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets in their own [respective] communities.”
Brainard told me, “We need to start at the local level, cleaning up pollution, planting trees, making every city a better place to live. It originates locally. Everybody wants progress.”
Carmel, with a population of 85,000, has received the Indiana Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence. Perhaps the reason Brainard has been repeatedly re-elected is because his constituency likes his sustainable initiatives. They include a long laundry list of efforts. In 2005, Brainard put forth an executive order for the city to purchase hybrid and bio-fuel vehicles. He spoke at length about installing roundabouts and their benefits, which eschews the usual traffic light intersection model. They conserve electricity and gasoline, while reducing air pollution. Tied in with this approach to traffic is Brainard’s commitment to an emphasis on more walkable areas and less “sprawl.”
In an effort to get on board with cutting edge technology, the city’s wastewater treatment plant adopted a process that yields high quality Biosolids, which is then utilized by local farmers as fertilizer. Simultaneously, it reduces “the amount of byproducts that end up in landfills.”
Indiana is number two in the country in terms of coal power generation; it also “leads the nation in coal ash ponds.” Brainard believes that alternative fuel sources must be cultivated “moving forward.” When questioned about the “jobs card” and “war on coal” that is inevitably referenced by Republicans such as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Brainard stated that Indiana has 2,800 coal workers who he believes can be transitioned to new employment. “The point is,” he said, “this is not a major source of jobs. There is no reason to be polluting the air. We have to take into account lung disease and asthma.” Brainard pointed out how the coal-fired plant in Indianapolis affects Carmel—due to the “northeast wind.” He added, “The entire region is impacted.
When we conversed about President Obama’s task force and the efforts of the White House, he responded, “I think he’s making progress.” After a short pause he noted, “I wish this had happened years ago.”
Before we concluded, Brainard again revisited the actions of Republicans in the 1970s, and President Nixon’s part in creating environmental safeguards and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. He highlighted, “There are a lot of Republicans around who care about the environment. Clean air and clean water should be non-partisan.”
Brainard’s final thought was clear: “We need to do what’s best for the people.”
Photo: Courtesy of the US Conference of Mayors
This interview originally appeared on the website Moms Clean Air Force
When I first walked into Starting Out: 9 Abstract Painters 1958-1971, I didn’t immediately remember that the pristine space on Fifth Avenue was the site of a raucous opening I had attended decades ago for a 40th Anniversary Exhibition— where Larry Rivers was present. Without the hecticness of a large crowd, there was a serenity that enabled me to see and be enveloped by the large-scale paintings (in addition to framed works on paper) in solitude, and with the advantage that an empty gallery allows.
The premise of the show, as outlined in the press release, is to highlight a different time not currently prominent in the art public’s mind—“the late 1950s into the 1960s.” It was the period when the gallery championed the work of a new group of abstract painters, referenced as “the second-generation New York School.”
Most of the exhibited artists continued to explore abstraction for the duration of their careers in one form or another. Others, such as Jane Freilicher (b. 1924), evolved to a place where she expressed her vision through representational images. The gallery states that for Freilicher abstraction was “a resting point.” Ironically, it is her oil on canvas that is the first painting that greets the visitor upon arrival.
Untitled Abstraction can be read as a precursor to her future landscape paintings. Areas of blue at the top of the canvas and bottom sections of scumbled green—that evidence the drip marks of thinned paint—act as points of enclosure for a sandy colored swath which is punctuated by accents of red. Freilicher studied with Hans Hofmann, absorbing his lessons about non-objective painting. By 1963, in her watercolor on paper, Freilicher titles the piece Abstract Landscape. She is on the road to the imagery that would be clearly defined two years later.
Edward Avedisian (b. 1936), in his painting as well as his gouache on paper, makes use of strategically placed concentric circles placed in a larger field of opaque color. Their pictographic quality, combined with the ochre field it is placed upon, call to mind symbolic markings on the African masks of Burkina Faso.
Strategically placed on a wall by itself is Many Parts by Friedel Dzubas (b. 1915). Large floating forms resembling landmasses exist as individual islands of color. Although that are separate, they appear interactive. The shapes are static, yet there is a sense of movement. There are what appear to be shadows behind the colors of gunmetal grey, ultramarine blue, yellow, and sherbet green. Rather, they are stains from the medium mixed with the paint—which is flat and without texture. Dzubas emigrated from Nazi Germany in 1939. Thirteen years later, he would share a studio with Helen Frankenthaler (b. 1928).
There are numerous connections between the different artists in the show—such as friendships or student-teacher relationships. Part of the history of the Tibor de Nagy gallery is embedded in the camaraderie that grew within a community of artists, poets, and writers.
Frankenthaler’s Two Live as One on a Crocodile Isle is hung opposite the work of Dzubas. She studied at Bennington with Paul Feeley (b. 1910). Frankenthaler was included in two shows at Tibor de Nagy in 1951. In the spring, she was featured in The New Generation exhibit. At the end of that year, she had a solo show. Here, she uses oil washes to achieve both a spontaneous and a lyrical character. Combining color, fluidity, and spontaneous markings, there is the suggestion that the movement within the canvas can only be temporarily contained.
Adjacent to the Frankenthaler is a narrow painting by Kenneth Noland (b. 1924). His output, frequently divided into categories reflecting the geometric impetuses of his work—circles, chevrons, diamonds, stripes, and plaids, were examined and reexamined. Space of Red falls into the “plaid” period. Muted tones of reds and purples stain the surface while combining tonalities with vertical and horizontal lines.
Represented by both works on paper and a painting, Feely’s canvas challenges the observer to gravitate between perceiving the work through the prism of either positive or negative space. His blue expanse can easily read as a body of water between two earthly regions. Then again, while focusing on the yellow vastness, his blue transmits the symbolism of an hourglass.
In his watercolor, executed two years earlier, Feeley investigates interlocking shapes that mimic each other. Here he uses three colors with an intermediary band establishing a neutral no-man’s-land, thereby alleviating the conundrum of an either/or resolution. The interlocking shapes suggest both male and female manifestations, simultaneously thrusting and receiving.
Also engaged in the use of positive and negative space is Kendall Shaw (b. 1924), who had three one-person shows at the gallery in the mid-Sixties. Shaw uses form and color as a meditation on the energy of space, placement, and connection. Of the six panels, all colors claim a wide band and a narrow band. It is how they interface with the wall and to each other that is crucial. Like Feely, Shaw challenges participants to the witnessing process to resolve their own determination as to where the borders and frontiers lie. For Shaw, color is feeling, and here every unit operates both individually and as part of a whole.
The large, seemingly monochromatic work of Ralph Humphrey (b. 1932) invites a prolonged examination of his tactile and velvety black surface. The conscious application of paint is evident in his use of texture as hints of blue and evidence of brick red reveal themselves as part of the underpainting. There is a feeling of planetary “other worldliness,” as if one is viewing part of something that fell to earth. The canvas yields a hint of Humphrey’s work to come, which would explore subtle modulations of color on wood—as well as his witty and spirited “window paintings.”
While Humphrey’s image struck me as lunar, the Darbary Bannard (b. 1943) gouache and pencil on paper (1962) and his alkyd on canvas resonated as solar. Executed during a period of minimalism, Bannard’s pencil drawn circle, surrounded by a halo of yellow paint, almost looks as if it were achieved through the use of a protractor. There is a slight element of shading that gives the circle a three-dimensionality, yielding the potential of a sphere. Perhaps Bannard was working out ideas he would explore the following year, when he placed a half-circle of saturated yellow at the bottom of his canvas.
Many of these artists veered in totally different directions as time passed and they continued to challenge themselves with questions about how they were painting and what they were trying to express. Bannard, in a recent article in the Miami press in conjunction with a 2012 exhibition, spoke about finding himself “at loggerheads with the art world’s tastemakers.” He stated, “I don’t change for any reason except that I want to keep myself interested.”
This exhibit gives gallery goers the opportunity to see how that path started for him and his contemporaries.
Photos: Courtesy of Tibor de Nagy Gallery
Tibor de Nagy Gallery
June 5, 2014 – August 1, 2014
724 Fifth Avenue
New York City
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