bitef mapa

Milena Dragićević Šešić

UNESCO Cultural Policy and Management Department

University of Arts in Belgrade

From its very beginning BITEF has been networking at different levels in the artistic and political circles the world over.It has become the interface where politically confronted or separated cultures meet. Positioned as a cutting edge festival of new theatre tendencies at a time of the “culture of hope” (Dominique Moisi), BITEF has been establishing new parameters of the modern culture in the West and crossing the frontiers of the cold war and universal geostrategic divisions. At the same time, long before the anthropological approach to the theatre will take Schechner and Brook to the Third World and open the ‘third road’ for Barba, the Yugoslav non-aligned policy brought to BITEF traditional theatre expressions from around the world, and Mira Trailović, with her curator talent, found for them the true name and the true place by opening the first BITEF in 1967 with a Kathakali production – the “roots of the world theatre”, a production which BITEF and Yugoslavia got as a guarantee  that even the non-aligned policy needed to have an adequate cultural policy enabling the voice of those hitherto inaudible and invisible to begin echoing from the world cultural stage.

The Cold War brought to BITEF the best from the socialist bloc because East Germany wanted not only to demonstrate that it was not just as good as, but even better and stronger in artistic theatre expression and the Soviet Union, even though facing ‘dilemmas’ whether and how much to allow the dissidents to present themselves, “let out” theatres famous for their openness and difference from the official ideology. This was already the time when theatre studios in Poland flourished, when theatre in Czechoslovakia offered a rare opportunity for public expression so that Grotowski and Kantor on one, and Krejča and Pintilie on the other hand, were important guests – the reference points of the festival programme.

At the same time, the Western cultural world brought their representative institutional but also innovative forms (theatres of Antoine Vitez, Roget Planchon, Patrice Chereau) and their specific incursions into thematical and aesthetical, from Stein to Botho Strauss to Heiner Muller, explicitly dissident forms (Living Theater, Bread and Puppet, La Mama…) and even the leftist community theatre – with interventionist, animating arrangements (Werkteater in Amsterdam).

The Third World brought to BITEF its roots that were so inspirational for the modern theatre: in addition to Kathakali, there were the Yoruba Opera from Nigeria, Noh, Bunraku and Butoh dance from Japan, Beijing Opera, Indonesian shadow theatre,to be joined by Western traditional forms: Sicilian puppets and even the American Medicine Show…

Thereby, in one and the same place there were theatre experiments of Grotowski and Brook, Krejča’s naturalist theatre, traditional dances of African tribes, archaic theatre idioms of major world cultures; political taboos were expressed and policies of oblivion of the world theatre scholarship “displayed’.

At the same time, because “personal is political”, by bringing together world artists gate-crashing the borders of all conventions (Jovan Ćirilov’s curator gift was indubitably very important): linguistic, physical, sexual and gender, BITEF became a platform for the promotion of the women’s theatre through Ellen Stewart, Nuria Espert…) and presentation of hitherto marginalised (relegated to the sub-cultural milieu) theatre voices of transgender persons, persons with various disabilities (Freaks show) and even radical political voices of the oppressed within the “all that free” Western culture (suppressed ethnic identities). Belgrade was therefore the first in the world to position the Catalan as a theatre language on an equal footing with others the international stage, and the production of the Moscow Theatre in 1968 served to Belgrade’s cultural workers (Bojana Makavejev, Branko Vučičević) to express their political protest on the occasion of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia by turning a Spacek into a tank and going in circles around Atelje 212.

The culture of hope of the time gave Mira Trailović the impulse and strength to find her way in spite of the conservative on one, and ideological-dogmatic circles on the other hand, and secure for BITEF a place on the world map as a point of freedom, a point of crisscrossing, fusion, refraction and coincidence of aesthetic ideas and artistic idioms on one ad radical political views and theatre as an activity, an agent of change, on the other hand.

Despite the lack of understanding (critics often ridiculed nakedness on the stage, incomprehensible modern theatre idiom of the physical or non-verbal theatre, travesty…), BITEF became a major festival of strategic importance for the big ones and the small ones, and for socialist Yugoslavia it became a flagship project under which all then young and avant-garde theatre creators, from Arsa Jovanović to Ljubiša Ristić, Dušan Jovanović, Slobodan Unkovski… could gather. However, as Mira Trailović was a polyglot herself, francophone one primarily (cosmopolitism and knowledge of language are indubitably the necessary prerequisites if one is to create an international festival of such significance), one must also give BITEF a French name and call it projet-phare, a lighthouse of the Yugoslav specific road and the political geostrategic position of Yugoslavia in Tito’s time.

True, one may not ignore the spirit of the age (l’ esprit du temps, Zeitgeist) which opened the then common theatre expressions to interdisciplinarity, interculturalism, forceful political commitment , or Mira Trailović’ s and Jovan Ćirilov’s strength to  understand both the world and the domestic political context and create the festival, a platform of meeting and exchange in the best tradition of theatre festivities of the ancient world. This must always be considered within the context of culture and socio-political relations of the time.

BITEF’s continuing artistic, cultural and political relevance has been based precisely on its ability to change and find appropriate strategies while holding on to its fundamental principles of openness, creative and curator freedom. The East-West, North-South, or as it is said today the Global South (yet meaning only economically prosperous global cities of the ‘South’ such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai or Seoul) divisions, even if they do not apply in the same way, still prove relevant because they bring to light some new centres and a new, forgotten periphery. It does not come as a surprise therefore that this year, for the first time, BITEF brings a production from Singapore, a new player on the international geopolitical and cultural stage. In other words, the periphery does not arrive with its tradition alone any more: it is here with its new polemical dialogue with the world.

At BITEF, theatres have always represented their countries; there, at the festival, we heard their anthems, often for the very first time, but it was also a space shared by all of them, a celebration opening with theatre fanfare, and frequently followed by processions down Belgrade streets or performances of visual artists thereby making the whole festival a cultural performance on its own. BITEF’s map of the world is not yet complete and will never be complete and it creates possibilities and challenges for new geopolitical and artistic strategic approaches.

And when the culture of hope was replaced by the culture of humiliation (D. Moisi) BITEF found its way to survive owing to the rhizome system established during the culture of hope. The festival has evolved, changed, begun to open new regional, geopolitical paths.

Today, when the culture of fear dominates the world geopolitics and when art as a “soft power” (Nigh) loses its importance while religious fanaticism, ethnic nativisms and racial conflicts become the predominant powers in wars and conflicts erupting across the world, BITEF and Belgrade, no longer at the watershed of the worlds but in the centre of a heartbreaking refugeeroute of destroyed or about to be destroyed cultures and peoples, become the voice of ‘another Europe’, Europe of open borders in spite of fear and humiliation.

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The conference BITEF and Cultural Diplomacy: Theatre Festivals and Geopolitics will endeavour to shed light on the significance of BITEF and in particular the leading role of Mira Trailović in the geopolitics of 1960s and 1970s, and show the ways in which the theatre art and theatre festivals can explore today the political frameworks of the world. Thirty participants have been invited and another fifteen chosen after an open invitation to confront the results of their research, their thoughts and visions in two  debates and pave new ways towards the understanding of BITEF history and the role of culture and the art of theatre in cruel world geopolitics when the cogwheels are no longer just ideological or economic interests butemotions, concerns and fears provoked by terrorist acts, enforced migrations, violence by authorities, corruption, repressive policies of memory and oblivion…

The invited participants, from the introductory speaker Jacques Lang (we still don’t know if he will be able to come) to MishaShvidkoy, will include, not only as ministers of culture and experts in cultural policies and cultural diplomacy but primarily as participants-witnesses to BITEF beginnings and evolution.  Jacques Lang as the manager of Nancy Festival, BITEF’S partner in many projects, then the Minister of Culture in France invited Mira Trailović to be the artistic director of the Theatre des Nationsin 1982. Many years later, on behalf of BITEF, Jovan Ćirilov received the lofty international award Premio Europa per il Teatro in Taormina. These two events speak of the importance of BITEF as a world relevant festival. Other participants on the first day of the conference will also address BITEF and its place in the cultural diplomacy of Yugoslavia once and Serbia today.

The second day, with introductions by Jonathan Wickery (England) and Monika Mokre (Austria) will mean a broader story about the relations between art, culture and cultural diplomacy. Numerous foreign and domestic participants will address in an interdisciplinary manner and from different angles the phenomenon of cultural diplomacy at present when the bipolar world has disappeared and the new one has not yet been defined and when in view of new globalised market relations the popular culture and consumerism take the place of art festivals and events.

The round tables and sessions will have three working languages: English, French and Serbian, alongside all the other languages used in the region without translation and will constitute a small pluri-lingual platform advocated by the organiser of the conference: UNESCO Department for Cultural Policy and Management (interculturalism and mediation in the Balkans) of the University of Arts in Belgrade which has accredited its master programme in these three languages thereby enabling enrolmentof students not from the region alone but also of those further out,  from Argentina and the United States to South Korea, Japan to China. This programme thus becomes another instrument of cultural diplomacy.of a country which has not, unlike Yugoslavia, defined its geopolitical strategic priorities that could be significantly contributed to by cultural diplomacy

The conference should consider the festival not as a safe haven, not only as a meeting or exchange place, but as a platform for a polemical dialogue, confrontation of different aesthetics and thoughts and primarily as a “path to the future”, the flight path (Delhaize)  in this completely changed political landscape. BITEF does not carry a usual festival name inspired by standard narratives of theatre festivals: dialogues, confrontations, meetings… BITEF, as Belgrade’s international theatre festival,  has entered successfully geopolitical currents not as a follower but as a curator who, by understanding the context, points at untold links opening new roads of cultural diplomacy but even more so, at true forms of international cultural cooperation and exchange. As a part of Yugoslavia’s cultural diplomacy BITEF did not allow its role to be reduced to the representation of freedom of the Yugoslav society in the world divided by the Cold War; with its selection practices it pursued its own policy of building the world of cultural relations aside and despite geopolitical boundaries.


1st October, Saturday, Atelje 212

9.30       Opening

Minister of culture and information of the Republic of Serbia, Vladan Vukosavljević

Rector of the University of Arts in Belgrade, Zoran Erić

Director of Atelje 212, Branimir Brstina

Serbian UNESCO Commission, Goran Milašinović

9.45                       Milena Dragićević Šešić (Serbia): Mira Trailović, inspiration and role-model – 50 years

10.15    Ivan Medenica (Serbia): BITEF and cultural dipolomacy: a view to the future

10.25    Mikhail Shvydkoy (Russia): BITEF and its meaning for theater in the Soviet Union and Russia

10.55    Hugo de Greef (Belgium): Arts festivals, Voices in society  

11.15 – 11.45 Coffee break

11.45 – 13.15

Les festivals internationaux comme outils de la diplomatie culturelle: de la machine d’exposer au moteur de coproduction // semi-plenary panel (en français)

Chair: Marijana Cvetković (Serbia)

Speakers: Serhan Ada (Turkey), Lluis Bonnet (Spain), Corina Suteu (Romania), Manuèle Debrinay-Rizos (France)

11.45 – 13.15

Performing arts and geopolitical challenges // semi-plenary panel

Chair: Ksenija Radulović (Serbia)

Participants: Aleksandra Jovićević (Italy/Serbia), Anja Suša (Serbia), Barbara Orel (Slovenia), Radivoje Dinulović (Serbia), David Diamond (USA), Vlado Milchin (Macedonia)

13.15 – 14.00 Lunch

14.00 – 15.30

Culture & Diplomacy (in English) // semi-plenary panel

Chair: Dragan Simić (Serbia)

Participants: Pawel Potoroczyn (Poland), Mike van Graan (South Africa), Borka Pavićević (Serbia), Darko Lukić (Croatia)

L’art du théâtre – des enjeux géopolitiques (en français)

Chair: Vesna Cakeljić (Serbia)

Participants: Hannan Kessab Hassan (Syria/Lebanon), Pascal Brunet (France), Frédéric Moreau (France), Christine Merkel (Germany), Shanez Kechroud (Algeria)

15.30 – 16.00 Coffee break

16.00 – 17.30

Testimonies (in Serbian)

Beka Vučo (USA), Vladimir Stojsavljević (Croatia), Arsa Jovanović (Serbia), Zoran Blažina (Serbia), Irina Subotić (Serbia), Katarina Pejović (Croatia/Serbia), Vera Konjović (Serbia), Raša Dinulović (Serbia), Ivana Vujić (Serbia)

16.00 – 17.30

                Bottom-up cultural diplomacy

                Chair: Ljiljana Rogač Mijatović (Serbia)

Participants: Jonatan Stanczak (Palestine), Daniela Urem (Croatia), Biljana Tanurovska Kjulavkovski (Macedonia), Marijana Cvetković (Serbia)

2nd October, Sunday, BITEF Theater

9.30 – 10.30

Chair:  Vida Ognjenović (Serbia)

Jonathan Vickery (Great Britain): Are we multicultural, transcultural, pluralist or just internationalist? Culture, mobility and political ideology

10.30 – 11.15

Monika Mokre (Austria): Cultural diplomacy from bellow: Artistic projects with refugees and migrants

11 15 – 11 45  Coffee break

11.45 – 13.15

                Culture in diplomacy

Chair:  Anja Suša (Serbia)

Participants: Helene Larsson (Sweden), Damir Grubiša (Croatia), Ana Žuvela (Croatia),  Maja Pelević (Serbia)

Performing arts festivals in the time of changing geopolitics

Chair: Biljana Tanurovska Kjulavkovski (Macedonia)

Participants: Ivana Stefanović (Serbia), Dijana Milošević (Serbia), Jovanka Višekruna Janković (Serbia); commentator: Yun Cheol Kim (South Corea)

13.15 – 14.00 Lunch

14.00 – 17.30

Teatroskop / the network supporting exchange between contemporary performing arts actors in South-East Europe and France (en français)

                Chair: Anne-Lorraine Vigouroux (France)

                Participants: Jean-Baptiste Cuzin (France), Frédéric Moreau (France)

14.00 – 15.30 Rectorate, University of Arts, Kosančićev venac 29

I Paper session: Festivals and arts in Europe and the world at crisis (in English)

Chair: Rada Drezgić (Serbia)

Katharine Sarikakis & Olga Kolokytha (Austria), Dimitra Kizlari (Great Britain), Julija Pešić (Canada)

II Paper session: Culture and politics between conflict, promotion and international cooperation (in Serbian)

Chair: Nina Mihaljinac (Serbia)

Marinko Lolić (Serbia), Sava Stepanov, Vesna Latinović (Serbia), Ljiljana Rogač Mijatović (Serbia)

III Paper session: BITEF and cultural diplomacy (in Serbian)

Chair: Goran Tomka (Serbia)

Maja Ristić (Serbia), Aleksandar Prnjat (Serbia), Jagoda Stamenković (Serbia), Ksenija Radulović (Serbia)

16.00 – 17.30

IV Paper session: Cultural management and festival policy: searching for sustainability (in Serbian)

Chair: Marko Pejović (Serbia)

Ljubica Ristovski (Serbia), Milena Stefanović (Serbia), Aleksandra Milovanović (Serbia)

V Paper session: Strategies and instruments of international and regional cultural cooperation (in Serbian)

Chair: Ana Martinoli (Serbia)

Nina Mihaljinac (Serbia), Danijela Vićentijević (Serbia), Branislav Pantović & Nina Aksić (Serbia)

VI Paper session: Politics of representation in cultural diplomacy (in Serbian)

Chair: Jasna Zrnović (Serbia)

Jovana Karaulić (Serbia), Aleksandra Brakus (Serbia), Dajana Djedović (Serbia), Jasna Zrnović (Serbia)