48th BITEF, 2014.
Past is Present
Mankind produces Bibles and guns, tuberculosis and tuberculin. It is democratic, with kings and nobility; it builds churches and universities against the churches, it turns monasteries into barracks yet allots chaplains to the barracks. It goes without saying that the society supplies also ruffians with rubber tubes filled with lead so that they can batter their neighbour, and then prepares in advance the bed for the tormented, for the surviving and unfeeling bodies…
Robert Musil, Man Without Qualities
Reflections about this year’s selection could not but start from the hundredth anniversary of World War I. In part, because it is a historic date of great significance for the territory we live in, and in part because the anniversary has been accorded a special place and importance in most European countries, particularly in the field of culture. The reinterpretation of World War I from the perspective of historiography has opened a new battleground between the advocates of the traditional, 20th century perception of that war and the proponents of the current “revisionist“ concept relativising the aforementioned traditional approach which has predominated in text-books until recent times; this causes confusion as to the identity of the aggressor and the victim and arouses renewed passions demonstrating that World War I was not just a time-defined historical event but rather the beginning of a long process which has not seen its end yet and the political use of which can be, and is, the source of new conflicts.
The shots fired in Sarajevo thus become the shots fired by a potential fighter for freedom or a potential terrorist, and World War I becomes the immediate cause and means of modern political repositioning.
At this moment European theatre is deeply involved in reflections about World War I and projects addressing the anniversary in a way predominate in the European theatre practice. Needless to say, we are talking about the artistic interpretation of historical events, free of the obligation to be “objective“ which, at least on paper, binds the scientists but, nevertheless, inevitably raises the question whether the “objectivity“ in theatre is at all possible and whom is it, after all, intended for and who needs it. The question also arises whether the theatre of our time is capable of provoking the same thrill and the same mass identification with an historical event such as, for instance the theatre of the late 1980s which, as the historian Dubravka Stojanović writes, with the production of The Kolubara Battle contributed to the creation of a mythical image of World War I and transformed a theatre ritual into a religious one. At that time in the auditorium of the Yugoslav Drama Theatre one could hear cries “Forward!“ accompanied by mass weeping and sloganeering and the excitement which, Dubravka Stojanović says, resembled the initiation to a newborn nation.
Is the theatre of neoliberal capitalism, movingly anachronous in a way because it still rests on the bourgeois system of balancing between the box-office success and satisfaction of its own illusion of political subversion which is accessible to few citizens (according to European statistics, mostly middle-aged women of the dying middle class) truly the place of critical awareness and possibly a place of a revolution? This year’s Bitef will try to ask this question.
We shall also try to offer an insight into the long duration of inchoate political and social processes begun with World War I which shaped the picture of Europe and resulted, among other things, in World War II, the Cold War and finally the wars in the territory of the former Yugoslavia.
This selection does not address World War I as a kind of tribute and even less so as a remembrance jubilee as would befit a state. It raises questions about it from the perspective of the present day, starting from projects literally dealing with World War I such as Front by Luk Perceval addressing it from the Western point of view to two productions based on contemporary texts of Serbian authors with international prestige: Biljana Srbljanović and Milena Marković (This Grave is Too Small for Me and The Dragonslayers) observing the historical events from the perspective of this territory and local political pathologies to a documentary theatre project Battlefield of Memory 1914/2014 from Berlin directed by Hans-Werner Kroesinger who tries to thematise Western and Eastern, collective and personal, scientific and artistic perception of historical events related to World War I.
There will be also several productions tackling other important historical dates emerged from the processes launched by World War I, such as the production based on the celebrated text by the Polish author Tadeusz Słobodzianek Our Class, laying the emphasis on the painful issue of the Lithuanian anti-Semitism in the recent history. (A)pollonia by the Polish director and international star Krzysztof Warlikovski is a walk through the 20th century and traumatic sites of the recent Polish and European history. Aleksandra Zec by Oliver Frljić speaks of the Yugoslav wars in the early 1990s and an innocent victimised child as a metaphor for the sacrifice of one’s own future. Borut Šeparović, another artist from Croatia, addresses the contemporary commodification of social discontent which generated the r’n’r album Paket Aranžman in the early 1980s, asking rhetorically Where’s the Revolution Scum? Corinne Maier, a young Swiss author addresses the issue of personal history which is always a product of the collective memory in Past is Present, and the Slovenian director Jernej Lorenci asks in The Crazy Locomotive a self-reflexive and rhetorical question about the achievements and the revolutionary potential of the modern theatre in relation to the modern society. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, an Ivica Buljan production, is based on Danilo Kiš’s book which has been one of the most controversial literary works in the Yugoslav history ever since it appeared in 1976 when it caused extraordinary stir in the literary circles and was proclaimed the “greatest post-war scandal in these lands“. Ever since, it has been inspiring a multitude of renowned artists and has led to numerous political debates in the Balkans; the pseudo-documentary style and the epic structure of this novel offer an impressive foundation for the understanding and the interpretation of history’s mechanisms and different repressive systems. On Trial Together, jointly created by Ana Vujanović and Saša Asentić is an artistic project made of theoretical and artistic research and performance. The research focuses on different historical and current forms of the social, cultural and artistic practice which make a “spectacle“ of the collective and mass body and on contemporary dance as an artistic discipline emancipating the visibility of a liberated individual body. The project is adjusted to the context within which it takes place and the authors observe pictures of bodies within the social systems which marked the 20th century and through personal experiences of the East European socialism and Western neoliberal capitalism. Laureate of several Serbian theatre festivals – performance Neoplanta directed by András Urbán is inspired by László Végel’s prose. The piece reflects on the tumultuous recent history of the City of Novi Sad marked with traumatic events which have been a defining factor of relations and identities of its inhabitants.
We have before us an edition of Bitef calling for an active political and social participation of the artists and their audiences; it does not offer light entertainment or easy oblivion, which problematises the policies of memory within the context of creation of ethnic and other identities and it presents to us theatre which issues a binding call to engage in a turbulent and an ever-uncertain dialogue between art and the human community.
Belgrade, August 2014
Anja Suša and Jovan Ćirilov, Curators