Could you tell us about the focus of the festival this year?
Bitef festival is organized by a team of young but very experienced people, highly proficient in their job. This year’s biggest challenge is the performance Mount Olympus, a 24 hour’s spectacle by Jan Fabre, because organizing is like organizing a festival within a festival, and that is something we have never had before. We are getting thoroughly prepared, like we always do when it comes to everything but it really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see something like that. That is why it is more than a simple recommendation - it is an obligation for anyone in the theatre-making to see it, because it definitely can be considered one of the turning points in the theatre history in the first half of the 21st century, and you must not ignore that fact. Having it at Bitef is really important because Bitef, as a festival, must have such huge leaps in content and in form. That is very important for our country and for our artists. As for the rest of the main programme, Ivan Medenica’s selection consistently adheres to the festival slogan - Epic Trip. Everyone who knows or assumes what is behind that slogan, will find something at this festival that suits their taste, be it in the performance “Snow, or in the “Hearing”, in “The Bible”, or in our festival production, directed by Jernej Lorenci.
How do you personally understand the slogan? How is epics seen from the contemporary point of view?
I am constantly in a dilemma whether Bitef should have a clear concept or it could be a collection of magnificent performances, varied in genre and style, which would not have to fit under the same definition. Still, I think that this year a concept is necessary. People more wise than me have said that a myth is a truth that never happened. It is necessary to retell mythical stories but now in a way suitable for contemporary man. It is unbelievable, and proved through classical literature, how technically developed our civilization has become, while staying on the more or less the same level, or going backwards when it comes to spirit and ideas. When one travels and discovers something, learns something, one is expected to become better. We have been travelling for centuries and have not become better one jot. That is why I find this epic journey of ours so interesting, as it is seen from the perspective of a man who keeps trying to improve each day, even only through small gestures to the close ones. I think that it is our task - and when I say “our”, I mean the task of all the people in the world, and especially to the people in humanities - to keep trying to make this world a better place. This year’s Bitef will go far and wide in its attempt to contribute to that idea, to talk about the present moment, in the same way that “Mount Olympus” tackles the question of time. Since the future is uncertain, we must talk about our time, while respecting the past. The present we live in is also just a brief moment and we must not be irresponsible, we must try and turn it into something valuable.
What could you tell us about the support the festival has received this year from the Ministry of Culture of Serbia, and from the City of Belgrade?
I should say that last year Bitef regained the position of an unquestionable cultural event. We are absolutely determined to help festival survive. The people in the decision-making positions have assumed a favourable attitude towards the festival with these references and this ambition. This year, there is no place for dissatisfaction. Objectively speaking, Serbia is not a rich country and crisis is here a permanent state. Still, we have obtained finances we hoped for. If there is a financial problem, it stems from the very poor ability on the part of the Serbian companies to recognize the marketing opportunity through a European brand. I find it baffling that companies with a developed production and ambition do not recognize Bitef and other festivals as their opportunity to make a breakthrough through advertising. In Europe, the word “Bitef” means something. Even the ones who do not work in culture know that there is a festival in Belgrade which somehow connects the East and the West. People remember those times and the provocation - they may not have seen it but have read about it. Bitef is a resounding name, it is a big bell of Serbian culture. It is high time we stopped denying the existence of the problem, the time we acknowledged the sound of the bell, and congregated around something valuable. I am surprized that I must explain the importance of Bitef to the people who have resources and ambitions to make their companies even bigger and stronger. The ones who have become the sponsors of Bitef are the ones who are thinking of their future image. I am happy that we have a group of companies who understand our problems and on which we can rely. Another problem is the size of our own ambition, but you cannot do this job without entering certain risks. You have to be ambitious and keep striving for the better. If we had not brought Mount Olympus, we would not now be facing any problems. If we had not brought the German performance Snow, which is important because it represents the continuity of German theatre at Bitef and is definitely one of the most relevant productions in Europe and in the world today, we would not have any problems. However, we wanted them in Belgrade, at Bitef and we wanted them here now. We did not want to wait for another year. We think that the city and this country and the people who live here deserve Bitef to be like this. This is not a festival of Belgrade, it just happens to be happening here. We keep reminding that Bitef is a festival in Serbia. This year we are presenting Showcase of Hungarian theatres in Serbia in Subotica. That is also very important for us. We expected more money from the sponsors but, obviously, we were too ambitious.
Could you tell us about this year’s side programmes?
Showcase is our attempt to make a connection to theatre from Serbia and theatre made in Serbia. Last year, our Showcase presented Belgrade theatres, and this time we have chosen three performances from Subotica. Showcase is important because Bitef is, simply stated, a place from which performances are purchased. The Slovenian director Jernej Lorenci once said that Bitef is where his performance Iliad got a kick-off towards its European success. Bitef is visited by the people interested in the regional production and they do not go to Croatia and then to Slovenia, but come to Bitef to see it all in one place. This year it is our wish to present to our guests, artists and critics, other festivals’ curators, what is created in our theatres. Bitef has an obligation to promote independent scene, contemporary dance, everything new in theatre and we try to recommend those art segments during the festival. In some way, all the side programmes are our attempt to recommend to our guests something additional to the main programme. Furthermore, it is a signal to some people in our local context who are too busy to perceive that kind of art. Therefore, for the eight to ten days of its duration, Bitef represents everything Bitef Theatre stands for, everything it is obliged and dedicated to.
The production Kingdom of Heaven remains a part of Bitef repertoire after the festival. Since it is being produced as a coproduction between two completely different theatres - alternative Bitef and the National Theatre - what would be the challenge in terms of production?
The interesting thing with Bitef is that the festival is older than the theatre, and that the festival actually is its founder. In its beginning, the founders, Mrs Mira Trailović and Mr Jovan Ćirilov, realized that the festival performances must remain present between each two festivals. That was an intelligent, clever and reasonable idea which laid the basis of Bitef Theatre. In cooperation with the National Theatre, we are creating a performance for this year’s festival which will remain a part of both our and their repertoire for the next season, and hopefully longer than that. Since the first part of the performance is played on Raša Plaović stage, and the second in Bitef Theatre, it represents an actual trip, too, since the audience will travel for about one kilometre between the two theatres. That coproduction will be an absolute BItef miracle but I think that, at this moment, it is quite logical. In the past couple of years, the National Theatre has shown the energy of institutions we always think badly of - we see them as mammoth, slow, and closed for new ideas, but that is not the case of the National Theatre, and for that I am particularly grateful to Dejan Savić and Željko Hubač. The National Theatre has also proved, through its repertoire, that its approach is a very modern and contemporary one. There isn’t a single theatre in Belgrade at this moment, with a repertoire as interesting and relevant as they do. Bitef is the flagship in alternative theatre which is, unfortunately, rather weak at the moment for various reasons. It was logical for the two strongest theatres at the moment to enter the cooperation. Add to that equation Jernej Lorenci, one of the most interesting directors in the region, and we get the trio which, I hope, vouches for a good project. Despite all the problems and complexities which stem from the fact that our two theatres are very different, the idea is the link which hold it all together. It definitely is a challenge and challenges are something art comes upon and does not hide from. And yet another thing: when people ask, what is creative in producers’ job - here, this is what is creative: they are the ones, the Bitef producers and the ones from the National Theatre, who are now creating the way we will come to the final product everyone is expecting. That is the position everyone neglects and yet, at this moment, precisely that sort of creativity is in store, alongside everything created in rehearsals.
Bitef is welcoming some important guests again.
I hope to see not only people who work in culture but also the ones from public domain. I believe that is the way we could erase the unnecessary and false conflict between the culture and the establishment. I cannot see any reason why any country, ours in particular, should fear artists or what artists have to say. That is simply not something suitable for a statesman or a man with time-defined power. Artists are the people who think, and in this moment that night be radical but it is also objective. A piece of art or an artistic expression is not considered only in the moment of their creation. It remains. That is why I find it a bit strange that some, let’s say, fear - at performances, literary evenings, and exhibitions - people who deserve to be there, who have provided state funding, are not present. If someone represents this country, I would like to see them at exhibitions, in theatres and particularly at festivals like Bitef. That is my appeal - let’s erase those obvious tensions between the state and art. There is not a single artist capable of jeopardizing the state, especially our state in which he lives, it is a nonsense. We should not repeat things we have already been through. What kind of opus could have Miloš Crnjanski made if he, due to his ideological beliefs, had not have to leave the country and barely make ends meet living abroad? What kind of opus would have Pekić made if he had not have to go to prison for the same reason? And today, they are taught in schools. There is absolutely no reason why we should repeat the same mistakes all over again. Theatre is a meeting point, a place where certain things would be debated, it is based on a dialogue. Without theatre, there is no dialogue, but dialogue is not only on stage, it could be made before the performance and after it, and later. Let’s meet up in theatre and set everything we might not like about one another straight.
Interviewed by Ružica Anja Tadić