Letter from Belgrade

When I was in Belgrade on the day of the Eurobasket 2005 final against Germany, and although the Serbs were not in the finals, some 6,000 Greek supporters who were in the 20,000-seat arena to cheer on their team clearly demonstrated that they know just how much we owe them for basketball. Indeed, for several decades now, Serb coaches have taught Greek teams the right composure and self assurance that contributed to making the Greeks European Basketball champion once again. Meanwhile, there was – and still is – ample talent in another area of Yugoslav culture – the theater. But the problem for us is that, apart from the few times that one of their stage directors (such as Nikita Milivojevic and Slobo Unkovski) taught Greek ensembles, Yugoslav thespians did not greatly influence our own dramatic creativity. They weren’t given much of a chance, since their tragic confrontation with the most powerful global force – the US-led NATO. Yugoslavia has lost a war and is now a desperately poor country. Weakened and demoralized by the allied bombings and embargoes, the country disintegrated in 1995. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the Serbs have been collectively tried in the western media and found guilty of ethnic intolerance, forced ethnic displacement, the massacre of civilians, use of detention camps and creating an endless stream of refugees. In the words of George Bush senior, it’s a pariah nation. The 78 days of allied «humanitarian bombing» in 1999 – including the cluster-bombing of cities, the low-level nuclear war with depleted uranium, the chemical warfare through the bombing of local industries and the destruction of clearly civilian targets such as schools, hospitals and television stations – did not «teach them a lesson.» The name Yugoslavia finally stopped being used in 2003. Since then, the country has become a looser union, known as the State Union of the Republics of Serbia and Montenegro. As I have done several times before, I traveled to Belgrade for BITEF – namely, the Belgrade International Theater Festival, one of the oldest theater festivals in the world. Now in its 39th year, the theme of this festival – which has continually followed and supported the latest theater trends – was «Towards the Fairy Tale and Back.» Usually, western festivals in the fall (theatrical or otherwise) function as «an economic imperative» – filling the dead air between seasons. This is not the case with BITEF, however, which has become one of the four or five most respected European festivals. During the exciting and youthful 1960s, the founders of this festival (Mira Trailovic, Jovan Cirilov and their associates) courageously followed tumultuous events in global theater that teemed with avant-garde explorations. This year, a deeply suggestive production of Christopher Marlowe’s dark, menacing play «Edward II,» directed by Diego de Brea from Slovenia, was one of the highlights. So was the collective work of minimalist choreography in «Janei» from Zurich, Switzerland. Experimental plays from Denmark («Andersen’s Dream,» directed by Eugenio Barba), Berlin («Pablo in der Plusfiliale» by Rene Pollesch) and Riga («Long Life»). Despite the unstable political climate that influences all aspects of life, including the arts, the most important theater tradition in southeastern Europe appears to be flourishing. Bearing in mind that the situation in Serbian-Montenegrin society is presently full of tension and suspense, it’s logical that the current atmosphere in their theater reflects this unpleasant situation. But the most interesting aspect of this festival is that some 15 years after the beginning of the wars that dissolved Yugoslavia, a cultural approach of all former republics was reborn. One of the most interesting productions at the BITEF was «Long Life,» adapted and directed by Alvis Hermanis, a young producer and director who runs the New Riga Theater in Latvia. «Long Life» is a reality show. The play’s program notes that «when the European Union commissioners came to Riga, they demanded that the young Republic of Latvia should make some kind of offering to become an EU member state. So they sacrificed the old people, since they were communists anyway, all of them!» Today, elderly citizens in Latvia are fobbed off with minimal monthly pensions of just 100 euros and have all but disappeared from public interest. Alvis Hermanis has taken this fact and transformed it into a piece of mute but moving theater. The story begins in a run-down flat, where five old and very poor people live. The audience members watch the slow daily routine of these elderly folks, a routine which is minutely reconstructed. The director has exclusively cast very young actors in the roles of these elderly people. For months they have studied postures and ways of acting, and they now interpret them with impressive perfection. It’s an excellent work which will tour Europe. Imagine: Just when you thought idealism was dead, along comes an experimental theater festival like BITEF in Belgrade.