by Savas Patsalidis*
Internationally acclaimed theatre and film director, Haris Pašović, made his name in the late 1980s with his landmark production in Belgrade of Frank Wedekind’s Spring’s Awakening.
When Sarajevo fell under siege, Pašović returned to the city. He remained active throughout this traumatic period, directing plays and also creating the first Sarajevo Film Festival, with the theme of “Beyond the End of the World.” Pašović produced the now-legendary Waiting for Godot, directed by Susan Sontag. He also managed to make yet another exceptional venture during the Siege of Sarajevo, when he led the Sarajevo Festival Ensemble on tour in France with the shows Silk Drums, based on the Japanese classical theatre, Noh, and In the Country of Last Things, by Paul Auster. The tour began with a two-week presentation in Paris at Peter Brook’s Bouffes du Nord, and then continued in several French cities, after which Pašović and his ensemble returned to the besieged city!
Hamlet, by East West Centre Sarajevo, directed by Haris Pašović
In recent years, his Class Enemy, by Nigel Williams, has been on the program at the Edinburgh International Festival, Singapore Arts Festival and many other festivals. Football, Football was on the programs of the Napoli Teatro Festival Italia, Singapore Arts Festival and National Arts Festival of South Africa.
His documentary, Greta, about Greta Ferušić, a survivor of both the Auschwitz death camp and the Siege of Sarajevo, was shown at the documentary film festivals in New York, London, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Rome, Stockholm, Sarajevo, Ljubljana and others.
In April 2012, “Sarajevo Red Line” commemorated those who were killed in the city’s siege twenty years earlier. “Sarajevo Red Line” was a concert and a visual art installation consisting of 11,541 red chairs, one for each victim, placed on the main street of Sarajevo. The event was attended by countless thousands of people and was reported worldwide.
In 2013, The Conquest of Happiness, Pašović’s spectacular theatre event inspired by the writings of Bertrand Russell, had its world premiere in the U.K. at the Derry/Londonderry City of Culture.
In 2014, Pašović directed a massive multimedia event, A Century of Peace After the Century of the Wars, in Sarajevo, on the very site of the Sarajevo Assassination, for the 100-year anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. The show was co-produced with the French Mission Centenaire.
Pašović is currently the artistic director of Mittelfest, as well as the artistic director of the East West Centre Sarajevo and a professor of Theatre and Film Directing at the Performing Arts Academy Sarajevo. He teaches at universities in Slovenia and Serbia, and gives lectures and workshops internationally, too. He also writes plays, essays and articles.
Mittelfest represents a very significant artistic focal point in Central Europe, Mr Pašović says. Founded in 1991, it brings together the artistic ideas originating in this creatively potent European area, with those of Italian culture. As the major logistical route and tourist region, Friuli Venezia Giulia is also a platform for the meeting and exchange of cultural forces from the north of Poland and Germany to the south of Italy and Albania, and from Romania and Serbia to Switzerland. The Balkans should be seen as a large MittelEurope.
The basic values of Mittelfest are: Creating a common ground for European identity; open-mindedness; an international spirit; consideration of local cultures; European values; sensitivity regarding human rights and freedom of expression; dialogue; curiosity; surprise; joy; a sense of adventure and creative energy.
Europe’s identity crisis is evident. Confused between its past, when it was the main player in the world, and its uncertain future, Europe feels that it needs to reinvent itself urgently in order to remain relevant and prosperous. MittelEuropa reflects a contemporary European challenge. It summarizes, according to MrPašović, some of the most important European questions of our times, such as:
What is Europe’s role in so-called “globalization”? How does multiculturalism shape today’s Europe? Is immigration a problem or a solution? How can Europe remain competitive in the economy, culture and sports on the global stage?
Mr Pašović believes that Mittelfest can contribute significantly by focusing on European creativity and its inventive spirit.
Mr. Pašović, let me first congratulate you on your appointment as the artistic director of MittelFest. You carry on your shoulders long experience on the festival circuit. Do you see anything different in this new post? Any particular challenges?
Each festival is particular. A festival is more than just a collection of different programs. It is storytelling. It is also so connected with our contemporary moment, with local and international contexts, with financial circumstances, and above all, with the artists and audiences. I see Mittelfest as a platform for the artists from Central and South Eastern Europe, as well as Western Europe. The artists from our parts of the world are so underrepresented in the West. It is a great shame. I believe that we can build a true meeting point at Mittlefest. I am an artist before all and my focus will be primarily on the artists and audiences.
How inspiring do you find the diversity of the city, its history of multilingualism, and multiculturalism? Would you call it a good milieu for the prosperity of an international festival like Mittelfest? Any particular plans?
Cividale and the whole area of Friuli Venezia Giulia are so incredibly exciting in their rich culture, multiculturalism, and in the strong, unique character of the place! Mittelfest has been contributing to the diversity of the region for 27 years now, and creating a powerful artistic and cultural context in Italy and Central Europe. Our plan is to enlarge the festival and make it even more forward looking. We want to become a leader in cultural thinking in this part of the world, as well as a significant European post for artistic development.
Europe is undergoing a tremendous crisis. What position do you envision for Mittelfest within this struggling European landscape?
Europe is engaged in a multitude of processes to keep up with the ever-changing world and redefine its modern identity. Honestly, I don’t know a better place in Europe than Mittelfest to bring in a conversation—West and East, North and South—about the European cultural profile. Friuli Venzei Giulia is literally a navel of multicultural Europe.
Many people think of the European Union as the most interesting project of postmodernity. Do you think that most of the difficulties it now faces derive from the fact that it has invested in the pragmatics of economy rather than culture? And, if so, what measures do you think should be taken to bring back culture as its focus?
The EU has been evolving for 70 years now and I wouldn’t place it within postmodernity. For those of us who remember the Cold War, the Berlin Wall and the time of different currencies in each European country, it is still a project.
For all those people who were born around the 1990s, it is just a normal political and economic reality and they don’t have in their experience any different political or economic model of organization but the EU. It seems that lots of people older than 40, forget this fact. That’s why the theme of the 2018 Mittelfest is “The Millennials.” We want to explore the discourses of the peers of the EU. They belong to a generation that is completely different from the generation of their parents. They are more technological, more mobile, and more ecological than the older generations. Among them, there are also some who pursue extremist views. The Millennials are defining the future. They are facing all the old European problems, but also the current dangerous ones: Islamic terrorism; corporate and state surveillance; a rapidly growing gap between the super-rich and the poor.
The EU has been an economic model above all. It started as the European Coal and Steel Community. Culture has never been its focus. Yet, as Europe today struggles to fashion its identity, lots of Europeans start to understand that culture is a defining issue for a contemporary Europe. This doesn’t yet translate to the EU’s political level; the EU ministers often consider culture a decoration, because of national policies that fail to recognize the crucial role of culture for the future of Europe. The national ministers have poor views and limited knowledge, and the directors of the cultural institutions are afraid to pursue the European initiatives and practices.
Susan Sontag, in her text “Lament to Bosnia,” wrote: “Europe will be multicultural or it won’t be at all.”
Nicely put by Sontag. Do you see theatre playing a role in bringing people together? And, if so, how?
There is no better place in the world than Greece to confirm that theatre brings people together. I watched The Persians, directed by Aris Biniaris and produced by Cyprus Theatre Organization, in Epidaurus last year, together with perhaps 12.000 people, who came from different parts of Greece to see the show in that magical place. Karyofyllia Karabeti, one of the world’s best actresses, and other fantastic actors in that play, mesmerized all of us that night, and we shared an experience which is beyond description. In the theatre, we meet in our human essence and the theatre artists create in us a meaning of life. Another great Greek defined it in the best way: logos.
Yes, I was there as well, among those 12,000, and I share your feelings completely. And since you brought up Biniaris, I also strongly recommend his latest work, Euripides’ The Bacchae. If you get a chance to see it, do not miss it. From your long experience in this field, in what ways do you think the presence of a festival can help boost the development of the city that hosts it? Can you give us a couple of examples? And what about the cities which cannot afford to have a festival?
Festivals are the souls of the cities. The citizens treasure the festival experiences throughout the year. I am very Dionysian when it comes to the festivals. Also the “side effects” of the festivals—educational, social, economic and touristic—are clearly beneficial. I am a member of the international jury of the project “Europe for Festivals, Festivals for Europe” (EFFE), by the European Festival Association (EFA). We received more than 800 applications last year from festivals all over Europe. The spectrum and quality of the festivals are just fascinating. There is the small village of Sines in Portugal. What was started as a small, local festival of world music has grown to be one of the biggest European music festivals, and won an award as one of the five best festivals in Europe last year. Edinburgh is a champion of festivals. It decided to become a festival city holding a dozen festivals that bring about two million people to the city every year! Even during the Siege of Sarajevo, I directed the International Theatre and Film Festival MES, and people literally risked their lives to come to see the theatre’s shows. The people love festivals!
Many festivals show preference for plays that bring along with them a touch of local color. Say, plays about immigration, if they come from Greece. Or about war, if they come from the Middle East, or violence, if they come from Rio’s poorer neighborhoods, and so on. Is that a constructive policy? Or is it a policy that can very easily lead to exoticism? The commodification of the strange “other”?
It is simply racism. Many Western festival directors perpetuate this racist matrix, cementing the idea that only Western Europe is capable of producing real art and all of us are interesting only when we suffer. It reflects a general Western European problem, a colonial complex of superiority and lack of critical attitude towards Europe’s criminal past. The recent European attitude towards Greece was outrageous. In the 1990s, Europe let Bosnians be killed for four years. Now, it is about non-white immigrants. At the same time, European artists don’t go deep enough into these problems, and even the directors of the festivals, who want to address these issues, don’t have much choice.
Europe Today, by East West Centre Sarajevo; directed by Haris Pašović
Many theatre scholars claim that festivals are cultivating the mentality of supermarket chains: instead of promoting heterogeneity, they promote “sameness”—that is homogeneity. Do you agree with this claim?
It is true that many festivals have started to do shopping instead of programming. Some directors have developed a “Gucci-Dolce&Gabbana-Versace” type of festivals. It means that they don’t want to take risks, and they just go for the “brands” and copy other festivals. This also creates festival cronyism and, certainly, a club of privileged companies. It is not only unfair to all other artists and companies, but also it is very dangerous.
I like the way you put it, “Gucci-Dolce&Gabbana-Versace” type of festivals. It reflects my own feelings, as well. This being said, I am just wondering if festivals and avant-garde theatre are in anyway related? Or, to put it bluntly: Do you think there is such a thing as “theatre of the avant-garde”? I ask you this question because to have an avant-garde one needs space to launch his/her counter-aesthetic/critique. And I am wondering whether, within the reality of an all-embracing globalized economy, there is any room left for this?
Avant-garde theatre has always existed, and it has never been mainstream since its beginnings. The avant-garde emerges from the deepest needs of the artists and their extravagant talents. It exists today as well, but due to the ”Gucci-Dolce&Gabbana-Versace” festival directors and the fearful directors of the cultural institutions, we don’t see them as much as we should.
Would you agree with the idea that the fastest shortcut for any artist to enter the System is to be “avant-garde”?
No, the path of the real avant-garde is very difficult. The avant-garde is ahead of its time and it is often misunderstood or felt to be dangerous to the mainstream. But, you are right if you are referring to the quasi avant-garde.
I have one more question, more or less related to my previous one. Most festivals are sponsored by big economic forums or organizations or banks, governments, and so on—that is, by systemic socio-economic bodies which by definition “hate” any suggestion of “subversion.” To what extent do you think this “dangerous liaison” affects their status, their operation, and finally, the theatre they support?
It is always walking a thin line. We have to keep educating the governments and sponsors about the arts and the development of culture.
Faust, by East West Centre Sarajevo; directed by Haris Pašović
Yes. And education takes time, patience, vision, a strong will. What future do you see for theatre festivals? Do you see the need for a change of course, a reshuffling of their politics and poetics?
Each serious festival has to be self-critical. Innovation and prudent risks are at the very heart of the festivals. If the festivals don’t change for a long time, something is dying in them and it should sound an alarm.
*Savas Patsalidis is Professor of Theatre and Performance History and Theory in the School of English (Aristotle University), the Hellenic Open University and the Drama Academy of the National Theatre of Northern Greece. He is the author of thirteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. In addition to his academic activities, he works as a theatre reviewer for the ejournals lavart, parallaxi, and the greek play project. He is currently the president of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes Critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC).