Bitef 2016-2022: Seven Scenes Seen as Seven Sins

Agata Juniku*

Abstract

In this article I reflect on the concept of the Belgrade International Theatre Festival (BITEF) in the seven years-mandate of Ivan Medenica as its artistic director (2016 – 2022), his selection policy, its strengths and possible weaknesses regarding the local socio-political environment, and the impact that he had on re-constructing and re-defining the notion of the theatre community and its role in constituting the public sphere. I also bring a wider historical context of this festival, founded in 1967 on the wings of the Non-Aligned Movement, stressing its role all over the world, as well as the huge influence that it had in times of Yugoslavia as well as after its fall.

Keywords: Bitef festival, Medenica, new tendencies, international theatre, community

It just so happens that the deadline for this text finds me in Brussels, where I only by chance saw the performance Joy by Pippo Delbono; this coincidence provides a perfect entry point to my essay. For my generation, during our adolescence and early adulthood, Belgium, together with the Netherlands, represented for us the Mecca of contemporary, experimental, post-modern, post-dramatic theatre. Back then, I didn’t know that all these terms are not necessarily synonymous, but I clearly saw and felt that everything bold and new in the theatre was either produced there or inspired by that aesthetic. The Flemish wave theatre (one more ambiguous term whose referent is not merely geographical) had a profound effect on me and my subsequent professional path. And where did I see all the wondrous theatre that was inspired by and at that very source? Well, not on Bitef.

For those of us growing up in Zagreb in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we saw a great opportunity when two new festivals were organized in our town: Dance Week Festival in 1984, and Eurokaz Festival of New Theatre in 1987. These festivals, established within the municipal cultural institution (CeKaDe / Center for Cultual Agency), were directed by super enthusiastic selectors Mirna Žagar and Gordana Vnuk. Their mission was to present contemporary theatrical and dance productions while highlighting emerging authors, often viewed as marginal or subversive, some of whom were almost completely unknown even in their own countries, for example, Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio. In a way, although much smaller in both symbolic and cultural capital, these festivals at the end of the ‘80s had the same kind of mission as did Bitef at the end of the ‘60s.

BITEF, founded in 1967 by the City of Belgrade and led by Mira Trailović and later Jovan Ćirilov[1], aimed to showcase new tendencies in the world of theatre. Symbolized as the mother and elder brother of all Yugoslav theatre festivals, it was already viewed as a vibrant history of 20th-century theatre. As one the most representative outcomes of the Yugoslav modernization project – which started in the ’50s and was wisely followed by Tito’s initiative of the Non-Aligned Movement and its first conference held in Belgrade in 1961 – Bitef board enjoyed an exclusive privilege to invite literally whomever they wanted, both well-known celebrities as well as emerging young hopefuls, artists from Beijing, New York, Moscow, Wroclaw, Calcutta, or any corner (not necessarily cultural center) of the world. Only in its first edition, two highly avant-garde and, from today’s perspective, canonical plays were included: Grotowski’s The Constant Prince, and Antigone by The Living Theatre. In the years that followed, the festival hosted nearly every single theatre author that we may know of today.

Mount Olympus, Jan Fabre. Photo: Jelena Janković /Bitef

Within the context of persistent Cold War and all the political baggage and practical complication that follows, one can easily imagine the importance of Bitef to the world theatre community as a safe meeting point for the exchange of ideas. It goes without saying that for theatre artists, both well-known and emerging, from all parts of Yugoslavia, raised during the ‘50s to ‘80s, this festival was a sine qua non destination for attendance and preferably for participation. Although Bitef has never lost this aura of importance, even in a post-Yugoslav post-war era, it is also true that by the end of the ‘80s, the festival began to lose its bold spirit, and was seen at the time as established but predictable. During the ‘90s, especially during the bloody but never officially acknowledged war, the festival was clearly struggling merely to survive; due to Jovan Ćirilov’s international reputation and enormous energy, the festival actually did survive.      

Viewed in retrospect, the 1999 edition represented the beginning of reconciliation and renewal of relationships among ex-Yugoslav cultural communities that were shattered during the war. That year, festival invited Fragile by Montažstroj, a Zagreb theatre collective founded in 1989, just a few months before the dissolution of the single unified country. Not only was it the first Croatian performance hosted in Serbia since the beginning of the war, but it was also the recipient of the Special Audience Prize. After that, and especially from 2006 to 2016, when Anja Suša joined as a co-selector, the festival was intensely focused on regional productions. On the one hand, prioritizing the ex-Yugoslav context and bringing together artists with a common history and language, but on the other hand, it significantly reduced the highly appreciated original and international character of the festival. At this point, just after the 2015 edition, a new artistic director, Ivan Medenica, was appointed. Although in 2016 he co-selected the program together with Suša, that year already marked a significant U-turn towards a better past, but with eyes focused on the still-not-lost future. Basically, his main goal was to bring back to the festival the most interesting new theatre tendencies produced in all parts of the world, reconsidering and recontextualizing them, while at the same time bringing international significance to Bitef once again.      

Hearing, Amir-Reza Kuhestani. Photo: Sonja Žugić /Bitef

For reasons l mentioned above, I didn’t follow Bitef more than occasionally and superficially until the beginning of its second half-century, namely the 51st edition in 2017, the first one that Medenica produced as the sole selector and artistic director.  I was not attracted to the festival by the bright new selector who promised a lot, but rather by Mount Olympus, a 24-hour mega show, the crown moment in the artistic life of the ancient enfant terrible of the theatre on which I was raised. Still, I was not very enthusiastic about Jan Fabre’s performances produced in the post-90s; in fact, I was suspicious of what I was going to see, yet it was too appealing to resist. Soon after the beginning of the show, I was enchanted again by (t)his power of theatrical madness; I spent the rest of the festival either sharing that feeling with people of my generation and older or else discussing and arguing about it with people ten to fifteen years younger than me, who, to my surprise, seemed much less impressed by Olympus, preferring instead Ersan Montag’s The Extermination. On second thought, though, it appears quite logical to me, since both performances were physically intense and exhausting; the only difference that can be noted is like the difference between an epic poem and a Twitter post. Our sentimental education is obviously embedded in different registers. Speaking of registers and intensities, another powerful performance that year which will live in my memory probably forever is Amir-Reza Kuhestani’s Hearing, which was completely opposite in both mode and material; it was gentle, subtle, modest and quiet.           

Since then, I have spent every end of September at Bitef, with the exception of the so-called Covid-edition in 2020, and I will explain why.  As an experienced professional theatre viewer, with a load of performances and cynicism on my back, I am not easily impressed anymore, so it’s not as if I come back to Belgrade every year looking for the best ever shows, although a dozen of them I will surely remember. Bitef led by Medenica and his team was interesting to me as a great source of information, of course, but above all as a serious heterogeneous meeting point. Compared to other festivals in the area today, and even beyond, Bitef has offered a huge surplus of discursive program, and I may have preferred its superstructure over its base. Considering that ultimate value, I want to deconstruct Bitef (not without author-irony) by appropriating Derrida’s rhetorical device for describing Artaud’s theatre, a negative definition. Instead of describing what Bitef was like under Medenica’s direction, I will show what it was not.

Odilo. Obscuration. Oratiorio. Dragan Živadinov. Photo: Jelena Janković /Bitef
1 Not Trendy  

That may sound absurd, given what was said earlier about Medenica’s wish for Bitef to regain its international glory.  But because of the very concept that he created, becoming trendy was fortunately not possible. From 2016 to 2022, for all 7 editions[2], he selected the performances, including the side program, according to two axes that often overlapped and sometimes merged. The first axis was that of the problem theme, and every year the festival would focus on a current sore spot or Achilles heel of the global socio-political context, so the topics were chosen as it follows: the migrant crisis; the founding narratives of civilization; the rise of authoritarian regimes and violence in society; the trans-human and post-human condition; the pre-apocalyptical ecological crisis; and the labor rights. From such weighty topics, poetic slogans emerged: On the back of a raging bull (2016), Epic trip (2017), World without us (2018), Let’s start love over (2019), Edge of the future (2020/21), We – the heroes of our own labor (2022).

The second axis or line was aesthetics; for each edition, a specific genre, form or procedure in performing arts would be highlighted: dance/musical theatre, durational performance, installation, immersive theatre, digital performing bodies and devised theatre. Because performances were chosen according to how well they fit within such fixed parameters, trendiness was not a priority; artistic quality and relevance, however, were clearly prioritized. If the artist, or the show, happened to be trendy or very famous, it was an added bonus. And of course, some of them were. Such as for example Jan Fabre, Thomas Ostermeyer, Wim Vandekeybus, Stefan Kaegi, Milo Rau and Oliver Frljić. More frequently, however, there were theatre authors with less visibility or still emergent, such as Katie Mitchell, Amir-Reza Kuhestani, Rabih Mroué, Philippe Quesne, Alexander Zeldin, Phia Ménard, Ehsan Hemat, Joris Lacoste and Amanda Piña. Among the participants, we can see both fortissimo and pianissimo, so to speak.

Eternal Russia, Marina Davydova. Photo: Sonja Žugić/ Bitef
2 Not Easy

Working with two fixed lines, a considerable body of heterogeneous material and exacting criteria, Medenica knew it would not be easy to cut out a tailormade suit. So he invited a Dramaturge of the festival, Filip Vujošević, with whom he could analyze and debate all possibilities, to help him develop a coherent festival structure from the story he wanted to tell, the problem he wanted to address and, of course, the performances he wanted to show. They began by introducing a Prologue day, a preliminary ceremony a day before the grand opening of the festival. This was a convenient means to acknowledge both the defining lines which guided the selection of festival performances as well as the occasional performance which did not necessarily fit either one. Loyalty to the logic of two lines sometimes required giving up performances whose artistic quality would normally be more than welcome at Bitef.  And giving up a quality performance is not easy.  When aspects of production and finance are added to the discussion, the process of selection is further complicated.

But it was also not always easy for the audience. Durational performances require a high degree of physiological readiness and a greater than average ability to adapt to frustration; immersive theatre removes us from the comfort zone of the passive observer; installation or devised theatre provokes our intellectual skills; documentary theatre can challenge our emotional limits. One might even ask: Is it theatre, after all?

Farm Fatale, Philippe Quesne. Photo: Jelena Janković /Bitef
3 Not Unquestioned

And they really did question everything, especially those aspects of performance related to installation and digital performing bodies; even dance was scrutinized. Some of the critics had probably still not come to terms with the 2018 edition, when Rimmini Protokoll’s Nachlass, pièces sans personnes won the Grand Prix, while Marina Davydova’s Eternal Russia and Alain Platel’s Requiem for L. were awarded the Special Prize.

 In his first year as director, Medenica decisively resolved a key question once and for all, programmatically arguing that all performing arts are theatre: contemporary dance, ballet, circus, performance, durational performance, lecture-performance, happenings, installation, digital bodies theatre, immersive, documentary, musical, zoom theatre, and also the good old dramatic performance. For the sake of the truth, it’s a 70+ year-old idea inherited from John Cage that theatre encompasses everything that is seen and heard in public. This idea has regularly been applied at Bitef from its first edition in 1967, but Medenica knew well that repetitio est mater studiorum. The history in its cycle of repetition has taught us that, unfortunately, no battle is ever won once and for all, whether it is a struggle over labor or other basic human rights, social values, or political or artistic standards.

 The wars in Yugoslavia brutally disrupted the continuity of modernization, in every social field and mode of human agency, and created a wide chasm between what is and what was.  We’ve seen it all very long ago, and in almost all the theatre genres mentioned above, but due to genesis amnesia we sometimes see it as if it were the first time, and conservative reflexes are hard to restrain. If we add to this context the petit-bourgeois moral police, who always claim to speak in the name of the whole “normal” world, the ultimate question arises: Is it worthy of state funding or tax-payers money? The classical case of anti-elitism shifted to populism.

Climatic Dances, Amanda Piña. Photo: Jelena Janković /Bitef
4 Not Appropriated by the State

In that regard, Bitef with Medenica was, I would say, in the same position as are all progressive and ambitious groups in countries led by authoritarian individuals or regimes: entwined in a complicated and persistent relationship of interdependency; structurally, the same conditions were in place as in 1967, although both the financial and ideological climates were more favorable.  A large-scale undertaking such as Bitef could certainly not be produced without a significant public budget from the City and State. Not without a trace of an auto colonial complex, Belgrade could not afford to discontinue the festival which contributes significantly to the cultural and symbolic capital of the City and State, and so successfully represents the so-called European face of Serbia. In that permanent clinch, Bitef was never ideologically appropriated by the State, and unfortunately, the State was never appropriated by Bitef. But the State always resorts to manipulation of power. Nevertheless, that relationship obviously became too tense and unbearable for the artistic director, and in February 2023 he withdrew.[3] Who will appropriate whom in the forthcoming Bitef iteration, or not, remains to be seen.

I Put a Spell On You, Ehsan Hemat. Photo: Jelena Janković /Bitef
5 Not Self-sufficient

Bitef was never focused entirely on performances; rather, its initial mission was to gather people from all over the world. For that reason, since its inception, the artistic directors would invite dozens of theatre professionals to Belgrade every year as guests of the festival. Even in extremely non-favorable conditions, such as the Covid pandemic, this tradition was consistently honored. Within such a framework, it is to be expected that Bitef would develop a rich and diverse side program. Medenica, I would say, preferred conferences that featured critics and scholars of theatre, book and reader promotions, round tables, and all genres of discussion that featured scientists from a wide spectrum of disciplines. In various festival editions, he interpolated showcases of local theatre practitioners who he felt deserved to be seen by international producers. It was also very important for him to include colleagues from neighboring countries, the region that expands the borders of ex-Yugoslavia, although this common cultural background  that we share is no doubt especially dear to him. One special program that deserves explicit mention is Bitef Polyphony, which has opened the stage to trans-generational and off-off trans-discipline performing arts since 2000. In sum, the motto of the autonomous directorial team at Bitef Poliphony could be Voice to everyone!        

World Without Women, Maja Pelević & Olga Dimitrijević. Photo: Jelena Janković/ Bitef
6 Not Unreproached

This motto captures the gist of most reproaches that are occasionally expressed, primarily by professionals close to Bitef who feel that they have been excluded. One major point of contention could be that the spotlight placed on the main program often overshadowed the side programs. As a carefully observant outsider, I would not dare to judge. As a regular guest and member of the jury in the 54/55th edition in 2021, I can only bear witness to the strong encouragement we received from the directorial board to follow all the programs included in the festival as closely as possible. Polyphony, for instance, was competently structured and carefully prepared, with many projects and events that I found both interesting and attractive to attend, yet I have to admit that regretfully, I rarely did.  Some days even the main program was simply too full for me to cover adequately. On the one hand, because of its reputation, Bitef offered Polifony a chance for greater visibility, yet on the other hand, Bitef shadowed it by its sheer scale, the drawback of all large-scale festivals, I would say.

The other reproach might be that Bitef was too detached from both the institutional and the independent theatre in the region, but I would not agree with that criticism. Besides showcases which gave local authors visibility and the possibility to present their work to producers from abroad, productions from local institutional theatres were included in the main program, for example, performances of Andraš Urban, Igor Vuk Torbica, Miloš Lolić etc., while some independent authors, for instance, Maja Pelević, Olga Dimitrijević and Bojan Đorđev, were invited to present their work or create a performance as a Bitef production almost every year. Medenica favored authors from ex-Yugoslavia of all generations, so he programed Oliver Frljić, Borut Šeparović and Bobo Jelčić from Croatia, Dragan Živadinov, Jernej Lorenzi, Sebastijan Horvat, Žiga Divjak, and Nina Rajić Kranjac from Slovenia, most of whom were later invited to Belgrade again to create Bitef (co)productions.

To sum up, the general criticism one might hear was that Bitef with Medenica as artistic director was too exclusive, star-oriented, and elitist, and the funding which supported lavish performances should have been invested in the development of local theatre. In that sense, the biggest and by far the most expensive project, Fabre’s Mount Olympus, generated the most controversial expression of this sentiment.  After the performance, an intensely heated discussion was conducted in the public sphere by artists and activists of the left, and the polemics lasted for months. Among the topics raised were the working conditions of the artists and their exploitation for the director’s personal profit. Although a Metoo moment did not materialize explicitly, we could still feel it underlying the text. Another set of arguments against that performance came blasting in, not unexpectedly, from conservatives, whose moral sensibilities were injured by the performance. The effect of a threat to the public moral health was, as they thought, intensified and multiplied by the fact that the whole performance was transmitted live on the Culture-Educational channel of National Television of Serbia.      

Paradoxically or not, that same performance, without doubt, will be memorialized in the history of Bitef as the embodiment of the ancient idea of community constituted and raised by theatre ritual.  That core value of theatre, which is usually seen as a welcome added value today, was almost palpable for 24 hours in the theatre hall as well as in every corner of Sava Centar, where the Olympus temporarily landed. During the last half an hour of the performance, at dawn, the door was opened, and literally everyone could join, which is the essence of festival as such. The feeling of having experienced such theatrical madness and joy together, much like an epic trip, remained with us for the rest of the festival, and for a long time afterward as well.  

Solo, Nina Rajić Kranjac. Photo: Jelena Janković/ Bitef
7 Not Pointless

The consistently intense feeling of being together emerged again during the Bitef Prologue Edition in 2020, this time being together in madness, sadness, weakness and fear. Due to the Covid pandemic, the main program was reduced to only two performances, and the core value of that three-day gathering was simply to come together, with few but very esteemed guests.[4] Just to be together, in discussion, fusion, and confusion, in an open-air scene constructed at Mira Trailović Square.

Both kinds of schism created by Mount Olympus, as well as all other question marks and dilemmas within and around the festival that I have indicated briefly in this text, in my view, represent a core value of politicalness. To be political means to raise and discuss questions, and to be together, whatever the circumstances may be. Artistic and cultural festivities have no point if they avoid it. Clearly, a festival that produces the political cannot be pointless.

***

Ivan Medenica (watching Solo). Photo: Jelena Janković /Bitef

At this point, I have chosen to read the introduction to the celebratory 50th edition of Bitef, 2016, signed by the newly appointed artistic director at the time, and written as a kind of Bitef manifesto for the near future. I was really very happy, and a bit stunned, to see that it mirrors my negative definition as a kind of positive image. I don’t see it as a coincidence; it can only mean that most of the ideas expressed there have actually materialized.

Except for listing the aims and wishes for the new festival era and announcing the program of the current edition, Medenica focused on the coincidence that, on its 50th birthday, Bitef found itself in the same structural position as when it was founded: on the border. In 1967, it occupied the border of global East and West, the so-called exclusive free zone of the world, conceived and constructed by the Non-Aligned Movement, whereas in 2016 it occupied the border of the global North and South, due to one of the biggest waves of people migrating from the rest of the world to Europe, with Serbia and Belgrade as a temporary buffer zone. Seven years later, some borders have been shattered, and some have been shifted to a place beyond what can be imagined. At this present moment in Bitef, the border is internal.

Medenica withdrew from his post as artistic director, and as far as I can see from current developments, there are two possibilities for continuing. The festival can either remain as a large international festival that influences the local context, or it can shift to a regional project based on a grass-roots initiative, but spiced with a touch of internationalism.  Perhaps it might also assume yet another shape that could emerge in between these two endpoints. In any case, the festival has returned to the border again. It won’t be easy, and I wish them luck.


Endnotes

[1] Belgrade International Theatre Festival was first run by municipal Theatre Atelje 212 until the foundation of Bitef theatre in 1989, which has since been the legal entity behind the festival. During the theatre season, it has its regular repertoire basically inclining to younger and alternative authors and (co)producing performances which are initiated by festival direction and realized in collaboration with other partners.     

[2] In 2020 only Bitef Prologue was held and in 2021 a double-edition festival program was presented.

[3] In his public announcements Medenica insisted on withdrawing (not resigning!) because technically he was already out of mandate which had expired a few months before. The City Government didn’t replace him, nor did they reapprove his mandate. Only after his withdrawal was the new artistic director, Nikita Milivojević, announced. 

[4] Two performances on program were Stefan Kaegi’s Uncanny Valley and Simon Senn’s Be Arielle F. The most distinguished guests in discursive program were, for sure, Erika Fischer-Lichte and Svetlana Slapšak. 


*Agata Juniku (1974) teaches at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb. She holds a DEA (Diplôme d’études approfondies) in Philosophy from Université Paris 8 and a PhD  from Universitiy of Zagreb. Her research is focused on contemporary theatre practice and theories of performance, as well as the procedures and strategies of politicalness of performing practices, including radio art. She is the author of the book Indoš and Živadinov, Theatre-bio-graphies: The Sacred and the Ludic as Modes of the Political in Theatre (2019).

Copyright © 2023 Agata Juniku
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