One of the Bitef side programmes, Bitef on Film, has been discontinued after its last year’s 40th edition. How do you feel about that and which phases did the programme go through in the past four decades?
I am a bit sad and proud. I curated Bitef on Film from the tenth Bitef on. The programme was an addition to the first festival’s big anniversary but since it was extremely successful, it continued in the years to come. In the beginning, the idea was to have it only that year, because of the Theatre of the Nations. It was full that year, almost impossible to get into the screenings. Our guest was Peter Brook, who participated that year with his performance The Ik (Royal Shakespeare Company). Bitef on Film was a wonderful addition to the festival but also informative about what was going on in theatre at the time, and about what used to happen, since the programme contained some historical plays. It also brought information about things our directors and theatre-makers did outside our theatre context. We screened many films by certain directors. We tried to include everything that we could not bring to Bitef in order not to make the programme too extensive. That was the case with Peter Stein’s production Shakespeare’s Memory (1976) which was too large to be invited anywhere, so Bitef on Film brought information on that performance. It goes without saying that all of us were well aware that a performance is a performance and a film is a film, and that the two fundamentally differed. Back then, the conditions - social, political and technical - were completely different. We did not travel as much as we do now and when we did, we did it in order to go to theatre. The entire Yugoslavia had two TV channels which did not broadcast for 24h. Foreign performances came rarely, information on anything foreign in general was very sparse, so it wasn’t easy to see or hear what others did. Bitef on Film was the info that made the Bitef programme more complete, it brought information on new theatre trends and the authors who participated. At the first Bitef, I got monitors from the German Embassy. In those days, the systems were NTSC, PAL, SECAM, and TVs sets could not be switched from one to another. So, the Embassy gave me three monitors, video player and three video tapes. I had never seen it before, nor had anyone else in Belgrade. Technical manager at the television explained to me that it was a new thing and that there are even two players in Belgrade. It was very interesting for our audience and even more to our foreign guests who came from behind the “iron curtain”, since they did not have any information at all. There were foreign guests who kept inquiring if there were going to be any reruns, it was all new to them. It was precious both to them and to us. Video was developing and spreading quickly - we slowly switched to VHS, and then technical development picked up speed and we got DVD, computers. However, that technical development, which was great indeed and which we are so used to now that we could hardly function without it, has eaten up Bitef on Film. Nowadays, there are hundreds of TV channels which broadcast all kind of things, there is a possibility to order DVDs via the Internet, and you have YouTube. There are those who do not like it, who prefer watching everything on big screen but they are very few.
Today, we have everything available on the Internet, and your task was to select content for the audience. What were your selection criteria?
I used to stay true to the main Bitef programme. I discussed Bitef motto with Mira Trailović and Jovan Ćirilov, and later, sadly, only with him, we discussed what the plays were about, who the authors were, etc. I used to search the books, call theatres and various critics who were well acquainted with trends in their countries, and asked for advice. That was my way. Times were different then and they were glad to send me those materials. It’s very different nowadays, you must have a licence for everything. I always tried to screen a recording of a theatre performance or, after several years, to screen a recording made at Bitef to new audience. In 40 years, I was able to present what used to become anthology, what was very important and awarded, to let people see again what they used to like at the festival, and to give the young audience a chance to see it for the first time.
Can you remember all the venues where Bitef in Film took place?
It wandered a bit. We started in Student Cultural Centre, and then we moved to Belgrade Youth Centre. Prior to the fire in Atelje 212, we were there, then in German Cultural Centre and then in French Cultural Centre until, finally, we settled in the cinema of Yugoslav Film Archives (Kinoteka). All the people in Kinoteka were very welcoming indeed - from the managers to film operators, so I really have to mention them all for their forthcoming, helpful and kind attitude.
Could you share some moments you remember from the past forty years?
First of all, I remember Peter Brook who visited the first Bitef on Film and was so thrilled to see the programme and how many of his films were on, that he had his latest film sent to Belgrade on the first plane next day. He really wanted it shown too. A part of the programme one of the following years was dedicated to his work. After that, he wrote a wonderful letter of gratitude. Lindsay Kemp was also wonderful and helped with great enthusiasm. There were moments which now represent nice memories but which were tragic at the time. I remember showing Bob Wilson’s The Civil Wars (1987) in German Cultural Centre, and the furious people who didn’t manage to get in almost tore down the entrance. I was all alone, they had given me the keys to the centre and, since I was doing everything by myself, I didn’t manage to get to the switch on time to turn off the light. When the screening, finally, began, I remember Mira Trailović yelling at me to switch it off and myself telling her that I cannot get to the switch. Someone close to it was kind enough to do it for me. Those are nice moments which prove that people truly loved the programme. In Serbia, everything is always late but I started on time because, first, I am a punctual person and second, I had to in order not to overlap with the performance in the main programme. Jovan Ćirilov told me once that he came upon an acquaintance in the street and tried to tell him something but that person just said: “Sorry, I have to go, I’m going to Bitef on Film! Vera is never one second late!” After that, Jovan told me: “Everyone knows you’re always on time, just so you know”, and I responded, “Yes, I am, and so are they”. It was allowed to leave and re-enter the screening but everyone wanted to see it straight from the beginning.
Interviewed by Ružica Anja Tadić