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Bos/Hrv/SrpShqipМакедонски 29 Sep 11

Old Yugoslavia Rediscovers Itself on Stage

Yugoslavia may be dead and gone as a political construct - but as a cultural space it has never been more alive.

Andrej Klemencic
Belgrade

Only a decade ago the theatre ensembles of the former Yugoslavia were scarcely on speaking terms – the legacy of grim years of warfare between Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Fast forward to today and actors and directors from once war-estranged countries not only talk to one another but hug and cry at theatre festivals.

There is a newfound confidence about tackling the issue of the region’s wars - together.

In the 1990s, the conflict was not ignored. But it was either addressed in highly brutal terms in films such as Srdjan Dragojevic’s Pretty Village, Pretty Flame or Wounds, or addressed with excessive delicacy, examples of this being the plays of Dusan Jovanovic.

In his trilogy from mid 1990’s , the then still ongoing war merely sneaked into  Greek tragedy, reminding only the most sensitive audience members of what was going on just miles away.

This year’s Bitef theatre festival in Belgrade brought together hundreds of actors, directors, writers and producers from throughout the former Yugoslavia, raising hopes of a renaissance of a common Yugoslav cultural space and of a marked rise in joint, cross-border productions. Many say it is the only way theatre and film can hope to survive.

Kokan Mladenovic, director of Belgrade’s Atelje 212 theatre, believes productions made within a single country have no future.

Kokan Mladenović

“I’m convinced that in years to come there won’t be a single significant theatre production that won’t be a co-production between at least two former Yugoslav republics,” he says.

“Music, films and TV series have taught us that a common market makes sense. Today you can’t make a film or series counting only on viewers from one country.”

Mladenovic’s own theatre has been in the forefront of the new wave of productions tackling Yugoslav themes head-on.

Its 2010/2011 programme features a season provocatively entitled “NEXT YU”.

“Everyone can say ‘Ex-Yu’, but very few dare say ‘Next-Yu’,” Mladenovic jests.

“But the feedback we got from the season shows that the idea of Yugoslavia is very much alive,” he continues.

“People in the theatre world feel claustrophobic, stuck in these cultural provinces created by the break-apart [of the old state],” he explains.

“In these mini-markets everyone is big and everyone can easily get awards. That’s not quality.” Click here for the interview with Kokan Mladenovic

Theatre scholar and Bitef programme manager Jovan Cirilov agrees heartily.

“Right-wingers will always oppose such friendships and creativity … [but] such opponents care little about culture as such,” he maintains. “What they don’t want to do is relinquish their feuds.”

Jovan Cirilov

Cirilov believes passionately in the continued necessity of a shared theatre “space” between the nations of former Yugoslavia, noting that a “continuity of theatre expression has survived in these countries despite the harshest conditions imaginable.”

He takes pride in the fact that seven of the nine regional shows at this year’s Bitef were co-productions between at least two former Yugoslav republics.

“Yugoslavia exists, not as a nostalgic term, but in terms of cultural cooperation between the South Slavic nations,” Cirilov adds. Click here for the interview with Cirilov.

Dramatist Borka Pavicevic of the Belgrade Centre for Cultural Decontamination, which has held many events on Yugoslav topics, says these issues need to be addressed openly.

“First, there is no such thing as Ex-Yugoslavia, just as there is no Ex-Austria-Hungary,” she opines.

Pavicevic says theatre must mirror reality and work hand in hand with democratic processes in the region.

“Critical thought is something that can bring democracy to these lands,” she maintains. “First to each country individually, then to all of us together.”

But not everyone is ready to hear the new message, according to Boris Lijesevic, director of Bitef's Grand Prix winner, the Sarajevo-Belgrade co-production Elijahova stolica [“Elijah's Chair”].

Prior to Bitef the show received “not a single written review in Serbia,” the director notes. “Until Bitef, our production was not invited to a single festival in Serbia. This was the first time.”

Elijah's Chair is about a man from Vienna who on his 50th birthday discovers that his father was not a Nazi officer, as he had thought, but a Jew from Sarajevo.

He goes to Sarajevo at the height of the siege in 1992, looking for his father. The show features a monologue by female lead Alma, played by Maja Izetbegovic, who speaks directly to the audience about the city’s suffering under the Bosnian Serb siege.

“When we see how people in Serbia react to this, it is clear that this piece is addressing a topic that hasn’t been tackled in the country for 20 years,” Lijesevic says. “But one of the key conditions for regional re-integration to happen is to speak about these things.”

A 2006  Bosnian film, Grbavica, about raped women from the Serb-held sector of Sarajevo, saw no regular theatre distribution in Serbia, he continues.

“Some people don’t want other people to see it. That kind of thing just makes me want to deal even more with regional, Yugoslav topics,” Lijesevic concludes.

Serbia is not alone in stopping its ears to uncomfortable, disturbing reminders of the recent past.

According to Atelje 212’s Mladenovic, the Croatian embassy in Belgradefirst said it would help with - but then pulled out of - a production of Gospoda Glembajevi [“The Glembays[Family]”] by the famous Croatian writer Miroslav Krleza.

“That production was the highlight of the NEXT YU season. The embassy initially said it would contribute but then dropped the project once they learned that it was going to be part of a season with a title like that,” he says.

In the old Yugoslavia, there was an unspoken arrangement between the theatres of Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana whereby the capital dealt with avant-garde and large productions, Zagreb handled more classical topics and Ljubljana staged experimental theatre.

Today those dividing lines have gone, as each country has had to develop these parallels within its own theatre space.

While most of the region's significant actors and directors still come from those three cities, writers from Bosnia have come to the fore because of their direct experience of the war - that being the most relevant topic that Yugoslav theatre can offer to a foreign viewer.

Igor Stiks, Sarajevo-born author of Elijah's Chair, on which the play is based, says regional authors sometimes face a challenge of being locked into writing about war themes alone.

igor Stiks

“Some authors have chosen to deal with that single topic,” he notes, “but I hope it will be possible for me to include topics from my ten years of life spent abroad.

Elijah’s Chair is not just a novel about the war in Sarajevo and not just a novel about the consequences of the Yugoslav wars,” he explains.

“What I wanted to achieve is for a German or a French reader to understand that this war happened to them, too, not just to some exotic tribes of the Balkans.”

Click here for the interview with Igor Stiks

Sarajevo actor Maja Izetbegovic, the lead in Elijah's Chair, is aware of the risk of being typecast in war-related pieces but believes such plays are still needed for healing processes to take place.

“I’m emotionally drained after playing these shows. I often say to myself: ‘Enough,’” she says.

“When will we stop talking about the war, the break-up and the transition?” she asks. “But such are the times we still live in, and we have to address the issues of our time.”

While Sarajevo stood on the margins of the Yugoslav theatre world, lacking an established tradition of its own, Slovenia was on another kind of margin, culturally at a distance from the rest of Yugoslavia.

This was not only because of its Austro-Hungarian heritage – shared with Croatia – but because Slovenes played little part in the Balkan conflicts of the past centuries.

Slovene director Dusan Jovanovic, one of the key theatre figures of former Yugoslavia, agrees that Slovenia’s culture scene sees Yugoslav matters through different lenses, and so sees renewed cultural cooperation outside of any political context.

“Slovenia's story was somewhat different to that of [the rest of] Yugoslavia,” he recalls. “That’s why it was perhaps easier for Slovenia to break ties to the other former republics.

“But things have changed now. I do not see this as some kind of re-Yugoslav-ization, because that expression would have political connotations and such connotations are absurd now.

“From the wreckage of the former country we have now many new countries, each of which has its own perspective.

“For a long time Slovenia refused to make tight cultural bonds to the rest of the region but in the last ten years, this has changed.”

He dates the beginning of this new era of cooperation back to the 2000 visit to Belgrade of the Drama Ljubljana, which then continued in a series of exchanges.

“Intellectual and theatre bonds have become very vibrant, which stimulates Slovenian theatre,” he concludes.

Actor Dragica Potocnjak, from the Slovensko mladinsko gledalisce [Slovene Youth theatre] of Ljubljana, which presented “Damned Be the Traitor of his Homeland” [a verse from the old Yugoslav national anthem) at this year’s Bitef, says she contemplated leaving the stage for good when the country fell apart.

“It felt wrong that someone was narrowing down our creative and living space. At that time I lost my faith in theatre and I wanted to end my career,” she recalls.

She is not the only Slovene actor yearning for a broader stage. Primoz Bezjak, who acts in the same play, says he wishes he could emulate colleagues from days of  Yugoslavia “who’ve shot films and had an opportunity to perform on a regular basis on stage in all the republics  of Yugoslavia”.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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