Moderator: Saša Ilić, writer
Ivana Bodrožić, author
Svetlana Slapšak, author (online)
Jeton Neziraj, dramaturge
Andro Martinović, film director
Stevan Filipović, film director
Hello. My name is Saša Ilić. I engage in literature, and am one of the participants in the reconciliation process involving literature, dialogue, translation, and the exchange of literary cultural-political ideas in the region. This process has been in progress on the literary and artistic scene for a very long time. We very often hear that the most important thing for reconciliation is to establish the number and names of the victims, build monuments, offer apologies, etc. But all that is just the first step. We have heard that this first step is exceptionally difficult. The thirty years since the events of the war have still not been enough to complete this first step. However, after that first step opens the abyss that you find yourself in when it has been made, and you don’t know in which direction to go next. I belong to the generation – or generations – that after 2000, of their own accord, started this process, without any institutional support, without society’s understanding, without politicians’ understanding, without the media’s understanding. And we then started to create a network – a cultural network, literary and otherwise – in order to initiate a dialogue, as it was called at the time, with some other groups, individuals, artists, intellectuals, people on the other side, in order to establish such a dialogue. On that path there were an incredible number of problems over these twenty or twenty-something years, many obstructions on the part of politicians, at the highest possible political level, and our work was very often perceived as the work of some ideologised subjects in culture and literature, whose work was not needed by this or any other society. So, I’m speaking about people, artists, who became engaged in contributing to mutual understanding through their work. I am very glad that today with us are people who have truly contributed, through their work, to many things changing on this scene, but who have remained somewhere outside of the focus of the public, outside the focus of politics, and – interestingly – who have themselves suffered on that scene the odium of the public and the society for whose sake they have laboured, whether by writing a book, writing or producing a play, or making a film. And today I would like to talk about how that process proceeded.
The process of reconciliation has been ongoing on the cultural scene for more than 20 years, it’s been ongoing for 30 years. In the 1990s there were some cultural organisations and despite the wartime conflicts they attempted to connect people, to organise some exhibitions, to translate some books and to achieve some dialogue. This dialogue existed. During the 1990s, these activities had a truly very low representation percentagewise; after 2000, a much more intensive development started. Then, after 2003, it started to decrease in Serbia, and after 2012 there was another chasm. And now we have a completely shattered alternative scene, and only a few individuals who are still trying to be active on this scene – on this much broader regional scene. The people that are here today are my close associates. In 2000 I tried to establish contact, through Beton, which we edited and published at the time, in the Danas newspaper, with such groups in the region. One such organisation that we reached, actually outside of the context of the former Yugoslavia – at the book fair in Leipzig -, was through contact with a colleague and friend from Pristina, Jeton Neziraj, the drama artist and – what is very important – an actor on the civic and nongovernmental scene. He heads an organisation called Qendra Multimedia. This is actually an organisation that has taken part in many cultural projects that can be linked to the context of the reconciliation process and confrontation with the past. Jeton, welcome. Thank you for being with us today. Can you tell us something about what that was like, how you came to the decision to create an organisation and to focus on this path of taking part in the reconciliation process by working on theatre productions, organising cultural programmes, and creating connections in the region?
A personal sensitivity to political topics has likely spilled over into my activity at Qendra Multimedia. However, before I start talking about Multimedia’s engagement and activities, I’d like to say that official Serbian policy – and not only Serbian, but perhaps the entire region’s – has functioned and functions according to the principle of negotiating the facts. It seems as though they believed Danilo Kiš, who in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich writes that the facts are what we agree they are. So, official policy in the region has in recent years invested in continuous efforts to find a partner in the negotiation of the facts. And those partners have been found in the political elites, but also in different societies in Kosovo, in Serbia, in the region. In the meantime, artists, cultural actors, and people who have been involved in our type of cultural cooperation, cultural dialogue, have made genuine efforts to provide a different, realistic picture of the war. So, to refute this narrative of negotiating the facts. For this topic, we could discuss a series of activities that we were involved in – not only Multimedia, but a large number of artists in Kosovo and in Serbia. We know that literature was at the centre of this cooperation. It started in 2008, if I am not mistaken, together with those of you who were in the Beton group at the time, with two literary anthologies – one published in Serbia, the other in Pristina – which we know made a lot of noise at the time, especially in Pristina, though much less in Belgrade, because there was a bit more curiosity there regarding literature that people knew very little about. So, they didn’t know what was the sensibility of the authors there, what the topics were that they were dealing with. In the meantime, this literary activity was followed by a series of translations and publications in Serbia and in Kosovo, and it seems to me that this was one of the boldest and most important steps when it comes to cultural cooperation. As the French-Lebanese philosopher Amin Maalouf says, we must know the other at the level of intimacy. And he says that literature is perhaps crucial in understanding the other. From the play Patriotic Hypermarket, which was performed at Bitef Teatar in 2011, which was followed by other projects – Romeo and Juliet, Encyclopedia of the Living, up to the latest performance that we had in November, Balkan Bordello. It has been a long path and it is very difficult for me now to go back to all those challenges and peripetia, to think about the reasons for this cooperation. So, this has nothing to do with personal reasons, but rather, I’ld say, it represents a personal perspective. Because for me theatre goes out to and communicates not only with those who have been converted, but also attempts to find collocutors in those who have a type of negative attitude toward certain topics, who are not prepared to see and communicate with the other side. In this sense, the cultural and theatre activities we realised had, I believe, a great impact on our cooperation, which I believe is now stagnating and has nearly returned to the zero point. When we spoke earlier, you mentioned also the Balkan Bordello show, which was fortunate enough to be performed in Podgorica, and later also in Pristina, and now it has also been performed in Belgrade. However, in Podgorica, the audience and the artists had the impression that this show did not suit the situation in Podgorica, because there were no “Agamemnons” there who went off to conquer other lands. Very well, Dubrovnik might have been shelled a bit, but quickly. And in Pristina, when the play was performed in 2007, directed by András Urbán, there were a number of critiques and protests and threats by war veterans, and again the reaction was that the “Agamemnons” should be sought in Serbia, because we didn’t have any “Agamemnons”. It is my impression that our societies are not or were not prepared to discuss Agamemnon, while paradoxically, we encounter “Agamemnons” cast in bronze, both in Serbia as well as in Kosovo. We consider them heroes, but at the same time we don’t want to link them to the crimes that these so-called heroes committed. We’ve recently seen that the current circumstances in Serbia have, I’d say, changed drastically. Even that small space for cultural cooperation that had been predominantly created around the Centre for Cultural Decontamination and Borka Pavićević, but also around the Beton magazine and Krokodil festival, has unfortunately been reduced. The circumstances and factors of this reduction are various, but it is very evident. People have the impression that in Serbia one should speak about the war as little as possible, while in Kosovo a different phenomenon has occurred – slightly more hopeful than here in Serbia. It has become almost normal for a Belgrade show to come to Kosovo and be performed, not only in Pristina but also in other cities. This type of change of mood is interesting. Of course, there are radical events that can occur that could reverse this situation, but the current situation is that we have a society in Kosovo that has apparently moved a bit forward, while for society in Serbia the existing little civil society and group of artists have been reduced and even been driven to the margins.
What do you think – how much has your work in Kosovo affected the change in public of certain political ideas, or, more specifically, certain political actors in Kosovo? How much has this been perceived as something important and how much have those ideas from the margins – from the position of culture – been moved towards the centre?
What is evident is that the political castes, both in Serbia and in Kosovo, never perceived cultural cooperation as important, nor had the will for it. Actually, in most cases they tried to stop this cooperation, and any type of cooperation – of cultural cooperation, because they were in practice not interested in the normalisation and improvement of relations. However, what is evident is that the number of people – artists and members of cultural institutions – who after ten years are involved in the cultural exchange between Serbia and Kosovo, has increased. So, what we call the ‘circle of traitors’, which in 2010–2015 was very small – a number of cultural actors that you could count on your fingers – now that circle of people has expanded, even the audience sees them differently, there is none of the stigmatisation that was dominant in the first years of cooperation. Any inclusion in such activities was considered an act of treason. It was believed that we were trying to deny the victims of the war, to trample on the blood of the fallen combatants. So, the entire discourse which was dominant during that period, was sustained by a few people who advocated cultural cooperation. Now, however the picture is different, the situation is much more relaxed, in recent years even some Kosovo public institutions have started to realize that it is normal to finance projects that have a regional scope, including cultural cooperation with Serbia. For example, take the Mirëdita, Dobar Dan Festival, which is financed by, among others, the Ministry of Culture of Kosovo. I don’t know to what extent – but it finances it. But as far as I know, that is not the case with cultural activities in Serbia. So, there is a type of easing up in the way how cultural actors in Kosovo are being perceived, and the way that Qendra Multimedia is being perceived. But this perception did not change because the political will changed, but rather because all these people did not back down despite the criticism, extortion and threats that have been common in recent years. So, I mentioned the case of war veterans in connection with the performance of the Balkan Bordello show – and the threats were real. The veterans’ argument was that the show was an insult to the values of the war, and I still consider this argument paradoxical, because I don’t know what values a war can have. Circumstances have changed. Today, many more people are talking about the values of peace.
Thank you, Jeton, for those insights. I would like to draw attention to a problem that is usually never considered, because people, when they are on stage, receive some texts of plays, or exchange anthologies, and so it is believed that it is normal for such forms of exchange to be carried out, for literary texts , contemporary texts from the Albanian scene, to be translated from Albanian, and for them to be published here. But I would like to note that this process of publishing the two anthologies between Kosovo and Serbia, which has been one of the key activities in the reconciliation process between Kosovo and Serbia, hasn’t been noticed in Serbia at all. And when the acquisition of books for libraries was carried out, it was very miserable, and actually the point is that you cannot go anywhere and say – hey, give me some of those stories, poems, drama of yours, here you go, here are our stories, and that’s the way it goes, and everything is great and we are pleased to have that. No, this is a process of establishing reconciliation that we have carried out between Beton and Qendra Multimedia, as was carefully recorded in the preface and which the anthology from Pristina has done with love and which was published in Belgrade. Jeton and I considered how we could present some literature from post-conflict communities, and for that preface not to be – well, like, here you have such and such heroes, such and such metaphors. So, in the preface it was necessary to achieve the minimal consensus and trust established between us in order to exchange those texts. Because without that there are no anthologies, there is no exchange, there is no reading, translation, and there is no future. And that is why I would recommend reading this preface which Jeton very cleverly titled Letters by Traitors, because one can truly learn a lot there about this work in post-conflict communities. I note that this is not done by publishing houses, not done by editors, and therefore no one wants to do such things because it is very sensitive, it is very difficult to achieve, and when something like that is done then we can say that we have achieved the first step, but that is only the first step. Then came the Polip Festival, and then some artists set foot for the first time in Kosovo or came to Serbia. So, that was the beginning and that has lasted for a very long time, away now once again from the public eye. With us today is author Ivana Bodrožić from Zagreb, who could also be a participant in some other panels as well as in our panel. I am pleased that she is in our panel now, because she herself has also struggled to achieve her position, she has moved out of the position of victim to the position of active subject in the reconciliation process, independent of this model that post-conflict communities establish, foster and demand of individual persons to conform to, deriving some insane benefit from it and from not moving away from that identity. So, her father disappeared at Ovčara in 1991, and that is a permanent, permanent trauma. We have recently seen the Court of Appeals in Belgrade pass down certain judgements, and there has been some reparation to the families of the victims whose disappearance and identity have been established. For the others, who have never been found, there has been a limbo, a bad infinity and without any response, any commentary – these people are left waiting for something. Ivana, welcome. Thank you. I would like to start from your commentary on this judicial ruling and how all that seems to you, this entire process of the Ovčara trial and how far it has come today.
Before answering your question, I would like to reflect on the commentary that concluded the previous panel, on how fewer and fewer people are attending these conferences – one is able to communicate and establish cooperation with increasingly fewer associations and groups. It seems to me that this is quite logical – 30 years have passed. You also mentioned Ljiljana Alvir and some other actors who actively took part in the process of both the investigation of the crimes and reconciliation. We have, for example, the previously mentioned Ovčara case, where in fact nothing actually came of it. And the people who are the families of the killed and missing are truly losing the enthusiasm to take part in these conferences, where for a number of reasons we all more or less think the same, and actually they get tired of repeating the exact same things, and there is none of it which would actually be meaningful to us. One thing is the making of symbolic gestures that has occasionally happened in these societies, and which we have witnessed. However, for the families that were victims of war and families that are looking for their missing ones, these symbolic gestures truly don’t mean much. When the war started, when my father disappeared, I was nine years old. Today I am 40. It might mean something to me in my life to find my father, as well as to my mother, who is now close to 70, but actually those people who were supposed to get some satisfaction, not in reparations but simply from the fact that the criminals have been found have been punished, and that the posthumous remains have been found – many of those people are no longer around. For example, my grandmother never buried her son and everything that happened and everything that she watched for twenty years absolutely did not give people any hope for reconciliation or for any trust. So, for me it is a completely logical fact that over time all this has gradually dissipated. There remain, on one hand, incredible enthusiasts who are honestly trying to work on the reconciliation process, there are people for whom this is, in a way, a job , who are within the legal system, and there is the political establishment which uses it very often for collecting political points, because such traumas are very good to operate and manipulate with regardless of how much time has passed. And with the passing of time, all of this together loses sense. On one hand, the symbolism turns into complete kitsch, as we can see with the marching columns that appear every year in Vukovar ahead of November 18; and actually there occurs a reciprocity completely reverse to what should happen – punishing war criminals, war reparations, a true process of reconciliation – in what we are seeing on television. I will just mention what I often point out: in Vukovar even today children attend segregated schools. People born in 1991 are 30-year-olds today. So we – not I myself directly, but let’s say, the generations slightly older than me, people who had political power, made it possible for them to learn from the earliest age that they had nothing to do in the classroom together, that they simply – even though they are not to blame for anything and started living in the city in that way when they did – that they simply don’t understand each other, so that when they sit down at a table in 15–20 years, they have been dehumanised to each other through the education process, through what we have called peaceful reintegration. So, my optimism is not great. A special question – let me just reflect on that briefly – is the question of missing persons. My father is part of the group of people who have not been identified to this day. With the judicial ruling for Ovčara, many families of victims whose bodies have been identified have received or will receive some form of financial compensation, which is also something that can be discussed. However, those who are missing – even though their families have lived in permanent agony, even though they have watched all those performances about the retrieval of some ancient documentation from the Vukovar hospital, even though they have watched the apologies – actually beyond those symbolic gestures nothing has ever happened. It didn’t even happen that a single person from the Serbian political leadership, and even the Croatian leadership, stood up for some information to be obtained. Killing and burying 70 people cannot be done by one man. That requires a serious infrastructure. Someone in this country, as well as in Croatia, knows about that. The fact that it is impossible to obtain such information after thirty years truly leaves the impression that they don’t want even to come to the places that deal with these issues. I will just tell you a small anecdote from a few days ago, when I told my mother that I was going to Belgrade to this conference, and she asked me – not for ideological reasons, but precisely for the ones I have just listed – “Why are you going there?” I said that I didn’t know – I’m going to talk to people. I am from a generation that cannot afford to say that everything is over and that nothing will ever be better, simply because I have children whom I wish and have to raise with some hope. Anyway… what she told me was, “Well nothing will happen. If you go there and come back from there – everything will remain the same.” For her – as someone whose life stopped 30 years ago, as a woman of 36 years who was left alone with two children – such things, like all the other things that are happening, simply do not give any hope or conviction that any progress has been made. We are in a long-term limbo. That is not a thing that can be unravelled easily. I found what Fred Matić said very interesting – he said great things. However, I cannot agree with one thing, and that is that the consequences of the war should not be something that other ministries, from the ministry of agriculture to the ministry of culture, should be dealing with. I think that they should, because war is a tectonic disruption in society that leaves great consequences on our lives, on every segment of our life, and dealing with these issues cannot be ceded solely to people in charge of this topic, as they say. So, we have to understand that the trauma that we went through collectively has a great effect on who we choose, what discourse we want to hear politically about ourselves, and about the others, and who the people are who represent us in parliament. For a start, we should have on both sides some political visionaries to whom it is clear what happened and where it has led, and at the same time, people who realize that 30 years have passed. So, this is important to us, this is important to me in my 40s, because I had that experience, because that was my father. So, the people who were born in ’91, who did not have the experience of war, are mature people today. They are not interested in all this in the same way as the people who are here today. We have to understand and somehow be capable of a broader picture. And that trauma which we carry around is undoubtedly transmitted to other segments of society and the coming generations. But there is no simple solution there, other than to stop electing people in Croatia and in Serbia who parasitise the trauma discourse, who were seriously damaged during the war on all three sides, and to actually get to some individuals and groups in society who will conduct a significantly different discourse. How that is done – that is truly a question for sociologists and politicologists, and also of course for all of us here. But I want to say that there is no one solution. I try somehow to distribute my solutions through literature.
Speaking of literature, I would like to make a small break and take a short glance at your novel, which is called Rupa (Hole). It is crime novel, noir, in which you have tried to actually merge your personal preoccupations and literary interests and write a story that thematises all this, but in a completely translocated and different way.
It is a noir crime novel that I wrote about the post-war events, in an unnamed city which definitely resembles Vukovar. I followed for a long time, also through the media, what was going on with majority politics and with the minority politics in that city, and from my life experience I actually concluded that most people there parasitise on the anguish, tragedies and pain of those people living there. I didn’t make many things up. I placed what I read and what I followed into a fictional framework. As Jurica Pavičić nicely said, when you write about Croatia it has to be a crime novel, especially if you are dealing with post-war events. However, the salvo of insults and negative texts that I received about the novel, the threats from members of parliament after the publication of that novel – that was something completely unbelievable. I was stunned how incredible it was that people could in their real life do certain things and not be ashamed, and on the other hand, when someone places them in a fictional framework, i.e. not naming them, but reminding them of themselves, they actually become extremely irritated – that it offends them greatly. So, I truly did write about that whole museum of propaganda that this city had become, and ultimately, I wondered whether that was the best that Croatia could offer – such a city 20 years after the war. I took them as a paradigm – on one side Glavaš, on the other, Stanimirović. Is that the best we can come up with after the war, after everything that has happened – and for these persons to be the people who will create our policies both in Croatia and in Serbia? So, this novel has experienced all kinds of things. However, it is interesting that this year it has been published in America, and at the same time it was declared one of the ten best crime noir novels. So, it has had a completely different fate. Everything about it was disputed – from its literary value, and how it actually addressed the topics – because I approached both sides at the same time. So, if this panel is looking from a writers’ and artistic point of view – that was my contribution to that. Of course, it has certain consequences. I live with the status of independent artist. It is a luxury, because of which I have the luxury to state my opinion. I don’t owe anyone anything and I am not dependant on anyone’s institutional assistance. On the other hand, as I said at the beginning, it is very uncertain position, especially if you do not capitalize your war experience, which you could do by settling into a nationalist niche; and often it isn’t comfortable, but it is the only one that I actually believe in.
With us today is anthropologist and author Svetlana Slapšak. What is interesting in this entire story about the reconciliation process is the role of women, especially in Belgrade, but not only in Belgrade – that is a topic you are familiar with. I would like to recall a moment in 2012, when the Democratic Party was deposed and the new Radicals came to power, when there was an entire wave of confrontation with those women in Belgrade who were proponents of reconciliation and confronting the past, and of regional cooperation. Nataša was one of them, and I would focus on the fate of Borka Pavićević, who was mentioned today and who headed the Centre for Cultural Decontamination in Belgrade, and Mirjana Miočinović. They were especially targeted not only by right-wing supporters, who could hardly wait for the return of the Radicals and Socialists. But what also occurred was the break-up of the so-called civic scene, which became drastically fractured at the time – perhaps the worst attacks came precisely from that bloc. Could you explain that a little and tell us something about that, from your point of view?
Let us just recall the atmosphere between the peace activists, opponents of war, people who had spent years risking their lives, their bodies, protesting against Milošević, and what happened after October, that legendary October. It happened that many of those people believed that they should collect on their services, that they should become ambassadors, or get some high-ranking positions, etc. The situation was not much different in 2012. When people want to become something, they make an effort to offer the authorities a head, as proof that they are believers, that they are deserving, that they are those who should hold positions. That happened in the second half of the 1980s, that happened at the beginning of the war, during the war, that happened several times after the war. Every time when there is – not a crisis, but precisely the possibility for such people to get something, they will offer someone’s head. There can be no doubt about this. These heads are – well, women’s heads are cheaper. Losing those heads has lesser consequences. They are easier to show publicly, easier to denigrate in public, just as happened to the two women that you mentioned. So, I am very familiar with this process and in a sense it has characterised literary life not only for thirty but a few more years back – nearly forty years. In the European context, this is one of the most interesting cases of the decay of a certain literary life and a certain literary environment, with dimensions such as have never happened anywhere else, not in any of the post-socialist countries. From the initial market of nationalism in the late 1980s, together with the decay of translation and cultural exchange. These were key phenomena, not to mention other things – the decay of the culture of the literary work above all. Nationalism does not produce good literature – and I will defend that thesis for a long time, with much evidence. So, something happened in literature that was not only literary life, the pressure of the war, etc. No, something happened in literature that radically reduced quality, which reduced literary horizons, which reduced the diversity of literature, which reduced the hybridity that was developing, which reduced the genre panorama, etc. All this happened in the late 1980s and during the first years of the war, when only authors who knew how to adapt were pushed into prominence. In this sense, the example would be a poet who had previously been avantgarde, who experimented with visual poetry and with semasiology, and suddenly started writing in decasyllabic verse. Because this is the change that actually to a great extent destroyed the literary fabric, precisely the literary fabric of Yugoslav literature. Then, during the war, self-seeking literature developed, which focused more on “our” victims. Then internationalisation developed – in the sense that many people left, and I’m not talking about the diaspora, but of the exodus which is still ongoing. This has contributed to a great extent to the internationalisation of Yugoslav literature, i.e. its thematic spreading around the world. But in this sense, unfortunately, there is still colonialism – and so scorning Balkan literature in general – and especially the former Yugoslav literature – never stopped. And finally – and what I consider most important – a new type of censorship developed, which we never dreamed of. If you permit, I would give two examples of this censorship. One is my own, one is of an author from Slovenia. My novel Ravnoteža (Balance) was written in 1996 and it could not be published for a full 20 years. It came out in 2016, mostly because it parodies, i.e. I parody Dobrica Ćosić and his poor literature. I wrote about that being poor literature back in the 1980s, and that too could not be printed for a long time. So, these are censorships that are publishing censorships, social censorships, censorships in literary life. Another example would be the example of Miha Mazzini, a Slovenian author who wrote the novel Erased in 2014. It was quickly translated into Serbian. In 2018, that same Miha Mazzini wrote the screenplay and directed the film Erased. His book made the short list for Kresnik, the highest literary award for a novel in Slovenia, but of course it was not selected. His film, when it appeared – a film of course has an immeasurably greater audience and influence – one of the most influential critics in one of the most influential reviews, Mladina, wrote a negative critique. That is the type of barometer that gives instructions to the Slovenian audience, advanced, progressive, smart – and that instruction was a bad instruction. That same film, however, won a series of awards. Among others, it won the award for best screenplay at the Pula Film Festival in 2019. It won several international awards, but the Slovenian audience did not accept it because it was rated poorly by an authoritative part of the progressive scene. This procedure is something that is not only a not very professional critique, but was also not very fair, so to say. I watched the film when it was acquired by HBO, and I saw that it was an excellent film, excellently made. The screenplay, of course, is more concise than the novel, it lost some unimportant parts, gained many important parts. The man made the film professionally and superbly.
What does the film discuss? The story is simple. A woman who comes with her parents to live in Slovenia as a small child. The father gets a job, the mother gets a job. They live in Slovenia like Slovenians. In ’93, the adult woman has an affair with a married man and she gives birth to a child who she wants to have. However, in the hospital the child’s documents disappear, they cease to exist. She thinks that it is a computer error. However, she soon realizes that her documents also don’t exist – therefore she and her child have been erased. The hospital suggests that someone adopt her child – so, a completely insane situation. In the meantime, she loses her job and all other privileges that she has with the status of citizen. In other words, she loses her status of citizen and her child. In that situation in the film she is helped by her father, from whom she has become estranged because he was an old-style Yugoslav. This stubborn father helps her to steal her child from the hospital. The last words in the film are her father passing next to the reception in the hospital and telling the nurse, “Death to fascism! Freedom to the people!” And the baby is saved. So, this film explicitly speaks about what happened in Slovenia in ’92, ’93, when – as you know – around 27,000 people had their civil rights revoked. All of them. They lost property, they lost jobs, they lost status. The only thing they could do was move out, if they were discovered without documents. They were supposed to change their documents, but no one informed them in advance about that change, so they were accused of not wanting to register. A series of the darkest scandals, which obviously did not affect only those 27,000 but many more – their families, their friends, their parents, everyone around. So, we are probably talking about around 100,000 persons. Many of them don’t have – as Ivana nicely put it- they don’t have the desire to deal with gaining their rights. European courts brought them justice, but justice was never realized in Slovenia. They were supposed to receive compensation – compensations are mostly rare and miserable. So, that is something that has remained from the war and it is still being dragged out through the courts. These cases are still ongoing, they have not been concluded. Some of them will likely never be concluded, because the plaintiffs are no longer around. And imagine now – waves, layers of censorship that we never dreamed of appear to be surrounding the literary and film treatment of such a topic. Parliamentary democracy enables new forms of censorship which truly no one ever dreamed of. And that is something that affects literature today, art, culture as a whole – that fear of the consequences, that uncertainty of the literary environment; and this is also accompanied by the social destruction of culture, of course, as we have seen in Slovenia in the past two years. So, not only unofficial, not only alternative, not only precarious, not only official culture is in jeopardy – because actually it is a hindrance to what is today considered parliamentary democracy. The problem of culture today is certainly not a problem of lack of cooperation. On the contrary, there is very much cooperation. It isn’t lack of translation, because there is translation, as we can see with the Albanian–Serbian example. It isn’t the non-coexistence of different new literary processes. None of that is a hindrance – on the contrary, it exists in culture, it is still making progress. However, the problem is in the state governed by parliamentary democracy that is the result of the most horrific word to have emerged since the fall of Berlin Wall – transition. Into what?
You have truly touched on the neuralgic points of these issues that we are discussing – what the cultural scene is facing in the process of reconciliation and otherwise -, and you have provided an introduction too, because we are moving to film. I would now like to introduce our guest Andra Martinović, who comes from Montenegro. The author of an interesting film, Neverending Past. It is an omnibus. We have discussed something that is very important for the reconciliation process, and that is confrontation of the past, the restless past, and how to achieve the overcoming of traumatic events from the past. What is your film about?
It is pleasant to be in this company, but unfortunately the topic is imposed on us not by the organiser but by reality. I will not take long to explain this individual case of a personal film. I will, in fact, take a look at the third part of this omnibus. There, too, a father is searching for his son who disappeared during the war. I started, actually from a true story, of which there were many which surpass fantasy. When he could not find his son’s body, he buried a different body, which had not been identified, as his son, in order to close that circle and give his family a chance of move on. Resolving what had happened to the missing persons, to list and find them – that is truly the most important and most noble task that these societies have, to start with. And it seems to me that when it comes to listing victims, I think that it would nearly correspond to the census of the population of the territory of the former Yugoslavia. Those who were born after the war are more or less all here, except for a small circle who were victims – victims of a broken-up country and of the war in which it broke up. Why do I think we are in such a situation? Here’s my humble opinion. When the conflicts ended, it was believed that it was the beginning of reconciliation, perhaps even that that would be enough to stop the conflicts. No more conflicts, no more war conflicts – although, as Milošević used to say, even that was not excluded. It was still believed that this was enough for reconciliation. Actually, that other, more important thing remained. The question of reconciliation must be a question of having some shared values. I will link that to a brief history of Europe. Why Europe? Here, Croatia is in the Union, Slovenia too – these countries, at least for those of the majority opinion – regardless of their internal divisions – want to be part of that community. The idea of the European Union is inseparable from peace. You probably know, there was that great concept, which one British historian called the Pax Romana, during Octavian’s rule, which established peace for several decades; and then under Charlemagne, who is called the Father of Europe for that reason; and then you have Napoleon – three phases of the idea of a unified Europe that introduced the civil code, abolished feudalism, etc. And then, following the end of the Second World War, with the 1950s, the economic community is created, and then transformed into a political community. Why am I mentioning this example? Well, the idea of Europe moved from the idea of tyranny to shared values. That is why I think that this issue – the issue of reconciliation on certain values – is very important today. Can we find some answer, even a broad answer, to what happened here? I think that our problem is not that we are not facing the past – we cannot get out of the past. It’s not that we are not facing it, but rather that we are experiencing it again, and this has lasted very long here. You see, a myth was created in the Balkans, the myth of the vampire; it is no coincidence, it seems to me, that here the past is a vampire that cannot be slain. It emerges from time to time, demanding new sacrifices in blood, and we might be able to agree on the future, but we cannot agree on the past. To us the past is as uncertain as the future. And that is one of the problems that we have as a society, as a community. It has moved, unfortunately, to the generations that don’t remember the war, who did not witness that war. War does not end when the weapons are laid down. It lasts a lot, lot longer.
So, what can a person do in such a situation, confronted by a moral dilemma, which is based, as I said, on one true event, where a body has been replaced and the father got someone else instead of his son? These societies have failed at this, which is an issue of the education system, an issue of culture. I think that those are the key issues. That is why I say that these are things, these are battles that are fought in the long-term, but you start them today, so that it will yield a result after a while. That educational, cultural paradigm of ours is very important. It is not a problem of this society of ours. Let’s say that the elite must make the major contribution to that, because I don’t underestimate the role of the people who are involved there – both personally and in defining some cultural model, if it exists. Mirko Kovač had a wonderful definition in his anthology of texts on the breakup of Yugoslavia, which he called Elita gora od rulje (Elite worse than the mob). That is what has happened to us. Now it is necessary to find a different pattern. I think that it exists. I don’t mean another elite, I mean that a different cultural model is necessary, which will take, let’s say, reason as the starting point, knowledge as the essence of development, and humanity as the objective. One of my most important experiences happened like this, by chance. It was during a study visit to Norway – sorry, Denmark. As we were flying to Copenhagen, I was reading the magazine in the airplane and a title attracted my attention. It said, “Nothing is rotten in the state of Denmark”. A parody of Shakespeare, Hamlet – and then I read the article. When I arrived at Aarhus University there was a lecture – I did not find it very interesting. However, the professor seemed approachable and he asked us to ask him something. When it was my turn – and I hadn’t paid due attention – I could not connect at that moment to his lecture, but I remembered that article, so I asked him “Professor, I’ve read about the Danes,” – that was what the article was about, that the Danes are the happiest people in Europe. So I asked him that question, “As a university professor, can you explain to me why the Danes are the happiest people in Europe?” So, he spoke for some 15 or 20 minutes – and I will tell you a few things. The lecture was brilliant, and we all agreed that it would be that experience, if it was possible to apply it to our settings, and I’m not such a pessimist that I think it can’t. So, he said, first, we are a solidary society. Here we all agree to pay the highest tax in Europe, because every elderly person, regardless of whether they have a family, regardless of whether the family looks in on them and cares for them, has a person that takes care of them. We are a society of agreements. Here the government and opposition wrangle for months to vote on a law, because that law should remain in effect even when the government changes. They can vote in parliament and overturn it. That would happen immediately in Montenegro – no apologies, they wouldn’t waste time. But in Denmark, they do ‘waste time’ – trying to find a consensus. They raise their children to be the best that they can be. That doesn’t mean like here, so you have competitiveness. You also have a president who says that you need to be the best, it is important to be the best, and then he falsifies what he is best at. They say no, here the best is not being better than another – it is fully developing your abilities. This is one model that would yield such a result, if we could apply it. We will not see reconciliation in the full meaning of the word, but it would be an assurance for the future of the next generation.
We have with us film director Stevan Filipović. So, you are among the small number of film directors in our country who addresses current, burning issues in this society. Regardless of whether you deal with violence, extremist groups, intolerance in micro communities, urban society/life, etc. So, what I’m interested in is whether, in addition to Ognjen Glavonjić, who also has this orientation towards current problems in this society – how difficult is it being a film director on such a scene with such ideas and film narratives? How difficult is it to achieve a film by under such conditions?
It’s a type of guerrilla. It’s some sort of personal, bizarre hobby. I don’t know how much it can be called a profession, since I don’t function within the framework created by the system. I’ll go back one step, for us to explain why the situation is such, for the people who might not know it. I don’t know how many of you remember the slogan “Truth, responsibility, reconciliation”. I think that we’ve stopped somewhere at truth, which here – speaking of the entire region – is not the result of the work of historians, scientists, but is some story that is ongoing and which is adjusted to the nationalist narratives of these puny states that we have created when we destroyed Yugoslavia through the consensus of some majority. And then out of all that stems all this. Whether Srebrenica was genocide or not genocide? I think that it is very simple to define oneself on this issue. And why do 99% of colleagues not define themselves – well, because they are calculating. And that’s how it functions, I assume, in all professions. And those are the key questions. We cannot move on and we cannot discuss anything if we do not have the truth, if we do not have the minimum consensus on what happened. And then it is very difficult to talk about some socially engaged work and socially engaged film, when people who are supposedly your colleagues say one thing behind closed doors, and go around cafes in Zagreb and listen to Serbian folk music in cafes in Pristina, having a good time, and we’re having fun socializing, and we are actually together living in the Yugoslav cultural space, and then they don’t exist in the public sphere, then they don’t exist in their films, then they accept this imposed colonialist model, where we stack our films so that they are actually okay to some x-y member of the panel of judges in Finland, sterilized of all local elements. Živko Nikolić would never have received money in today’s financing model, and that is an external reason why our films are the way that they are, because there is no life, because there is no truth in them. Because they are some products in that capitalistic-bureaucratic machine which will reward a good package, some properly filled-out form, and they give you 300,000, 500,000 euros, of Finnish, Danish, someone’s money, and then you will make that film where it isn’t known exactly which war it is, nor who is the one or who is the other, there is no prehistory. I remember watching, let’s say, The High Sun – Zvizdan, a Croatian film. Dado Matanić’s film is not bad – however, there is nothing that existed before. In this film, there are the purely dramaturgical problems that stem from that approach – for example, what are the motives of those Serbs in that part of Croatia at the time? Is there some previous history of what happened there, so that these characters have dramatic motives? No, we’ve eliminated all that. And why wasn’t Aida at the Auteur Film Festival? Why this phenomenal film by Blerta Basholli, that we watched yesterday – in my opinion, a revolutionary film, because it frees itself of this victim narrative, because something that could have been one more complaint is transformed into a powerful feminist confrontation with the patriarchate of the local community? Because it is a sincere, honest film. And it does not exist simply because it does not fit into something that generates money, because it doesn’t provide continuity to our guild. You know, I thought that it was normal when I started working on Skinning – I started, I joined Peščanik. At the time I was among the dumber and less educated people at Peščanik. I was fortunate enough to learn from people such as Vesna Pešić or, I don’t know, Srđa Popović, in debates, in conversations with them. That’s school, that’s university. That’s an investment in education that will later become the backbone of some political view, without which I have no right, i.e. without which my opinions on the topic of Skinning, which the film Skinning addresses, are meaningless. Well, that is precisely why this backbone was strong and reinforced with that engagement and that additional education – with what I call the second university education that I gained why Skinning resounded as it did. And that is why we had death threats, and that is why there was that chaos at the premiere, etc. Because we had struck the core. Now, of course, I cannot compare that to Brankica Stanić, who called out drug dealers by name. A feature film it is not. There’s a difference. However, now we get to one key thing, and that is, if we are talking the entire time about reconciliation, if we are talking about politics, about political thought, conceptually, of what we are doing, strategically I believe. Then can we talk about “art house” or some “off-off-Broadway” or can we talk about mainstream? Theatre, mainstream – that is my life choice. So, my goal, if I am involved in an attempt at conversation and reconciliation, it’s not “preaching to the converted”. So, we all know each other here and we have been telling the same story to each other for decades, and that is an important part of the entire thing, but that is only the beginning. I think that going out into the mainstream and communication with the audience which does not share our opinion – not the 20 people who will come to the exhibition, with all due respect to those exhibitions, because they too are an important part of some process – but until there is communication with one million, two, three, five, six million people, I don’t think anything will come of it. I think that the ramp can’t be skipped. And then – something interesting that happened precisely to Skinning: that something that was the narrative. Now, Ivan Čolović would be angry that I’m using this word, and rightfully so, but let’s say the narrative of Peščanik was conveyed into something that was ultimately seen by millions of people in the region. I think that this type of communication – if we are talking about political engagement – is something that makes the most sense to me. We have this separation of theatre film, which is even considered pejoratively, as something less worthy, kind of like people should not watch films, from something which is that foundation or festival film, which means that you will have an audience of 2,000 in the theatres. I think that this segregation is devastating, I think it is the result of some trench warfare from the 1970s, some sects at the faculties of dramatic arts, and I think that actually it contributes to deepening the problems and differences, and not to that process of reconciliation.
And what happens when you go to the Film Centre of Serbia with such a screenplay? These days we have witnessed the scandal where reputable film directors were denied support – what is your experience?
Well, I mean, we’re rejected – of course. They rejected us four times with a finished film in which BAFTA winner Miriam Margolyes plays. They rejected Goran Marković, Žilnik, in a competition that the commission had practically already adopted. A body that should be administrative rejected them. Each of my films was rejected at that step, and without that step you cannot access those European funds, and then – what is going on? But let me remind people – I don’t know whether they know – we don’t live in countries that have the capability of commercial cinematography, because we have very small markets. And then most European countries function according to the principle of these subsidised cinematographies, which is quite all right if you are French or German. There, no one raises the issue of political censorship at the first step. Here political censorship at the first step is default. And so – what does that mean for us specifically? It means that we will go guerrilla. That would be great if I was a writer or painter, so that I could assume all the risk – however, in film we have crews of hundreds of people who have families, they have to sustain themselves, and then I actually cannot ask, I have no moral right to ask, for the fifth time, to do a guerrilla film because I am politically different than those people who bring in money. This situation that we have now with Jelena Trivan and the Managing Board of the Film Centre, which is annulling the competition. We as a guild – with our ethics of Caribbean pirates and that focus only on personal interests, this apoliticality that they insist is a virtue – we have to come to the point where we have been crushed into a pulp that can then be taken and swallowed by the likes of Jelena Trivan or anyone else from such a regime. So that is something that is actually not talked about – except here. I don’t see a platform. My colleagues are not interested in talking about that.
I’m Borjan Jovanovski, a journalist from Macedonia. What I want to say in the case of Macedonia, what has made a great impression on me, is that there is a past that we have intentionally forgotten and which could very much be a basis for a better future. No one knows in Macedonia that in Prespa, in that region in the south, there is an exceptionally positive tradition between Macedonians and Albanians. I have found four families that have had fraternal relations between themselves for four generation. That goes back at least 200 years. And those are stories that no one is telling. On the contrary, you have these narratives that all lead in a different direction, encouraging hatred.
If I can add to that – the thesis that you have mentioned is very important. What I said about Blerta’s film from yesterday. So, will we ride that narrative of the victim, or will we change some paradigms? There are also beautiful stories. The fact that at some festivals around the world they want to see the Balkans as an animal, wild, caged, throwing faeces at each other – that is the problem with those festivals, and it is up to us to see how we will respond to that. Whether we will respond by telling different stories – some of which are positive, or negative, or critical, like this or like that, romantic, ordinary, thrillers, whatever – and that way create a richer culture; or create those postcards – what is rightfully called “poverty porn” – a pornographisation of poverty or stereotype of the Balkans, those wild Balkans where there is a nice profit. I think that it is an ethical responsibility of the authors to stop that trend.
And part of that responsibility is having an attitude and taking part in the discussion of different topics. I don’t know how many colleagues – well, Ognjen Glavonjić is quite explicit in these views – but how many other colleagues even want to take part in that type of discussion. No, that all happens behind curtains, closed doors. What is important is that the money is flowing.
Milena Dragicević Sešić:
I wanted to say that a discussion similar to this one – Is art possible after crimes?, eight discussions on this topic – was held in the past half-year at the Centre for Cultural Decontamination. And since it is a matter of the invisibility of such efforts, I wanted to point that out. Their concept of the conversation was only within the sphere of the visual arts, where, for example, no one in this discussion is working, and in their eight discussions there was a strong scene from Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, etc. curators, artists. So, I think that by not doing what we otherwise do more actively, more publicly, more provocatively, we actually simply don’t enable the effectiveness of both yours – so, everything that Beton did, and now others in Beton continue to do – and everything that is happening within the Krokodil Festival – and if all that would be counted, there is huge energy and activity in this counter-public, in this counter-culture scene, but it is true that it is somehow absent, that it is invisible.
Engaged literature bears a stigma, as if literature will actually be damaged by engagement. The only thing that can destroy good literature is an untalented writer. And novels that are engaged at least have some idea. There are so many novels that have been written which have no idea and they are poorly written. The awareness should be raised as to what these notions are – but as I say, my contribution to the declaration on a common language has come simply from those two directions. One was expert – the other common sense. All my books that have been published in Serbia have always been published with different covers, by different publishers, but with the same text – meaning there is no need for translation.
Thank you for attending our debate. I think that it was inspirational and interesting.