EFAcast - BITEF - Belgrade International Theatre Festival

In this new episode of the EFAcast, Simon Mundy meets Ivan Medenica, the Artistic Director of BITEF - Belgrade International Theatre Festival (Serbia).

The theatre festival runs from 23 September till 2 October 2022.

56th edition of BITEF

After two very trying years of deaths, health problems, depression, isolation, new and often completely inadequate ways of working and living, this spring offered a glimmer of hope that the coronavirus pandemic is finally behind us. Be that as it may, the consequences will be with us for a long time. When we talk about them, we usually consider the health consequences but neglect the equally serious economic and social factors. It was during the pandemic that we drew the distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” professions for the first time, dividing them into those we cannot live without and those, allegedly, that we can - a twisted approach inevitably placing the artistic professions in the latter group. For some of us, working remotely from home was an intellectual challenge, or seen as something less than real work but was, and still is, a minor problem compared to the loss of jobs and proper working conditions, forced upon millions of people around the world.

After these two difficult years, we have to face not only the fallout of the pandemic but the calamity of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, a gruelling, serious months-long war which is not about to end any time soon and, what is more, is threatening to escalate into a conflict of global proportions. The ones most affected are, undoubtedly, the citizens of Ukraine, exposed to death, injury, the loss of loved ones and their material goods, forced to flee the country. The victims, also, are all the citizens of Russia who are against Putin’s politics, because their opposition provokes oppressive laws and regulations, leads to the ominous “Z” being written on their house doors, and to their being forced to emigrate. What we are proud of is that none of the artists who have been friends and associates of Bitef in the past few decades - from leading directors (such as Kirill Serebrennikov), to leading critics (such as Marina Davidova) - supported Putin’s politics. On the contrary, they have themselves come under attack. Eventually, not only Russians and Ukrainians but many other Europeans, including ourselves, will end up as victims, suffering economic and social consequences in the years to come: inflation, higher prices, energy shortages, and eventually either job loss or the inevitability of doing several jobs at the same time in order to survive.

Still, you don’t have to believe in conspiracy theories to link the pandemic, the world war - and their economic and social consequences - to globalized neoliberal capitalism. All the aforementioned phenomena - precarious working conditions, job losses, neo-feudal forms of exploitation, forced retraining, etc. - characterised our world before the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine. In other words, it was already bad, now it only got worse.

As a festival with the mission to promote not only artistic but also social emancipation, and one which, over the years, engaged with some of the biggest challenges in the contemporary world (migration, political populism and authoritarian regimes, the ecological crisis…), the 56th Bitef has chosen as its central topic the question of labour in the contemporary world and the determination to fight for its dignity. That is what led to this year’s slogan - the words taken from the lyrics of a Yugoslav proletarian song Long Live Labour - “We, the Heroes of Our Own Labour”.

The nine performances that Filip Vujošević and I have selected for the main festival programme all treat this topic in a different way. From the lives of Mexican factory workers who cannot survive on the minimum wage (Tijuana), to the destiny of museum attendants, some of whom are art historians who could not find a job they are qualified for (Gardien Party), the mass exile of Serbian medical doctors to Germany (Dr Ausländer (Made for Germany)), and an overview of life in a British homeless shelter where a group of disadvantaged people end up after losing their homeland, apartment and/or - job (Love). Another group of performances tackle the issue of work in the performing arts - from the presence of women in Serbian theatre (World Without Women), to the professional perspective of a young and successful female director working in a small environment in a traditionally male world (Solo), and a multi-layered essay on the nature of contemporary dance which largely relies on physical labour (any attempt will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones).

As in previous years, Bitef opens with the Day of the Prologue, and a performance of (Not) the End of the World, produced by the Schaubühne from Berlin. We chose this production for the Prologue since its theme of ecology - and its ecologically sustainable production values (reduced lighting produced by pedaling bicycles on stage) - represents a link with the last year’s festival. Also, this production directly introduces the theme of the 56th Bitef, as the heroines are two scientists of different age and status, whose relationship exposes, among other things, the professional tension and malignant power structures in today’s academic world. Last but not least, the director is Katie Mitchell, one of the leading theatre practitioners in Britain, Europe and the world, whose work has not been presented at Bitef so far.

Indeed, the common denominator of all this year’s Bitef performances - and uniquely so in comparison to many previous Bitef festivals - is that, with the exception of Serbian authors, all the participants from abroad (directors and choreographers) are coming to Bitef for the first time. Serbian audiences will have the exclusive chance to engage with artists such as Jan Martens (any attempt will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones, Belgium), Mohamed El Khatib and Valérie Mréjen (Gardien Party, France), Alexander Zeldin (Love, England), Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez (Tijuana, Mexico), Nina Rajić Kranjac (Solo, Slovenia), Žiga Divjak (Crises, Slovenia). Most are famous names on the international festival circuit and some true stars, and besides Mitchell, this could definitely be said of Jan Martens and Alexander Zeldin. We are proud that, thanks to the generous support of our founder and patron, our sponsors and other partners and friends, we managed - even in a time of extended crisis - to offer Belgrade audiences a main programme of such international relevance and prestige.

Moreover, some of those names are Bitef “discoveries”, since this is where they will present themselves for the first time in a wider international context, and the promotion of up-and-coming artists is one of the festival missions. This year, they are two Slovenian directors: Žiga Divjak and Nina Rajić Kranjac. Incidentally, the production of Crises by the Mladinsko Theatre and Maska from Ljubljana, directed by Žiga Divjak, has been deliberately chosen to close the festival. Besides having its world premiere here, it will also widen the thematic scope of the main programme, touching on not only work-related social issues but also philosophical ones: the very nature of crisis itself. But the main reason for it closing the festival is that, after a programme that explores some rather depressing topics, it offers some light at the end of the tunnel - arguing that besides its more obvious negative aspects, a crisis can also be uplifting, stimulating, and opening up possible new perspectives.

In addition to a thematic axis, each edition of Bitef also has an aesthetic one, focusing on a practice or poetics of contemporary performing arts. Along with the thematic line, the aesthetic line examines the phenomenon of labour, its principles and strategies as they manifest themselves in the theatrical creative process. It comes down to various forms of debunking of hierarchies and a democratising of the creative process. This is particularly evident in so-called devised theatre, where all the creators of the play, including the performers, are equal co-authors from the beginning of the process, bringing their personal experience as potential material. This approach deconstructs the concept of the "director-demigod" typical of the director's theatre of the 20th century. Various forms of devised theatre - even when they do not define themselves as such - are represented at the 56th Bitef by both Slovenian plays (Solo and Crises) and those from France (Gardien Party), Belgium (any attempt will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones), amongst others. The democratization of the creative process is also reflected in the problematization of the importance of the "professionalism" of the performers: thus, in addition to plays with professional performers ((Not) the End of the World, Dr Ausländer (Made for Germany), Solo, Tijuana, Crises and Love), there are also those in which all or some of the performers come from non-professional backgrounds (any attempt will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones, Gardien Party), or are theatre artists but not trained actors/dancers (World Without Women).

Last but not least: both Serbian performances in the main programme are co-productions by Bitef and will be premiered at the festival. Their co-producers are two leading institutions of our repertory theatre, i.e. independent sector: Yugoslav Drama Theatre (Dr Ausländer (Made for Germany), directed by Bojan Đorđev, dramaturgy by Tanja Šljivar and Mina Milošević), and the Centre for Cultural Decontamination (World Without Women, by the authors Maja Pelević and Olga Dimitrijević). This decision has grown from a sense of social responsibility, the awareness that, this year, with the festival’s focus on the precariousness of work, job loss and the lack of adequate working conditions, it is Bitef’s duty to help domestic theatre artists who are professionally most threatened by the economic and social crisis we are all feeling: those from the independent sector. An enormously important partner in the realization of all this, is the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Belgrade, in whose space (the lecture hall of the Institute of Anatomy) the performance Dr Ausländer (Made for Germany) will be performed.

In addition to the lecture hall and in accordance with its tradition, Bitef will, this year, also use other alternative spaces, such as a museum, where the production Gardien Party will be presented (in accordance with its theme it is always performed in museums). After an understandable two-year break due to the pandemic, Bitef returns to Luka Beograd, where the festival finale will be held, with performances of Solo and Love, as well as the award ceremony. Thus - bearing in mind that, in Serbia, whatever happens twice is immediately proclaimed a tradition - Luka Beograd becomes one of the traditional and most important partners of Bitef.

Luka Beograd will also be the venue for one of the Bitef side programmes - Cirkobalkana, the festival of contemporary circus of the region. Other traditional side programmes include Bitef Polyphony, Bitef Library, and Meeting the Authors.

This year, in addition to the traditional side programmes, there will be a showcase of Serbian theatre, principally intended for the 500 foreign guests attending the plenary session of IETM - one of the largest international theatrical networks - which will take place during the 56th Bitef Festival. As well as the opportunity to see a representative sample of Serbian theater that displays Bitef-like tendencies, and thus contribute to its international visibility and placement, foreign guests will participate in the conference Work Hard, Live Harder, which will seek, from various perspectives, to shed light on issues stemming from the theme of the main programme: working conditions in contemporary performing arts.

Ivan Medenica
Artistic Director of BITEF