Ivan Medenica, Bitef Art Director, speaks of the basic idea and the message of this year’s selection before the beginning of the 53rd edition of the festival, which has made Belgrade a cultural reference point on a global scale for decades.
To what extent can theater influence a certain community nowadays, to fundamentally change it and set values - is an open question and, it seems, that there are few differences in the answers from society to society. This year’s Bitef performs under the slogan “Let’s start love from the beginning”. On what grounds, with what idea – are the first dilemmas that arise after saying this cult verse in the context of a famous theater festival. The word is given to the Faculty of Dramatic Arts professor and Bitef art director Ivan Medenica
How should the slogan of this year’s Bitef’s “Let’s start love from the beginning” be most accurately understood?
There is no absolute precision, let everyone experience it as they wish … This was not completely honest, because we know exactly why we took the title of this song by Aleksandar Korać, as the festival’s slogan, famous for the performance of Beti Đorđević, so logically we would like to have it both the audience and the media experience it.
However, it corresponds to three plays from the very end of 53rd Bitef, the Slovenian Ali: Fear eats your soul, the French Rare Birds and, above all, the last Belgian, Invited.
With them we will try – after domination, in the first part of the festival, to open up some perspectives which thematize the breakdown of contemporary society/community, from political to partnership.
First of all, through the performing forms themselves, to enable closer and more immediate contact, exchange, support, empty, solidarity – all that we are desperately lacking in modern society.
You say that the selection of the festival this year is such that it should “restore hope”. To which values? What differentiates hope and naive optimism?
In the values I have stated above: from the most basic, purely physical, such as watching, listening, touching, physical/energetic exchanges, to psychological and social, such as empathy, solidarity, general interest, a sense of community. Of course, as you well suggest, one should not be a naive optimist or give false hope … Neither plays, nor artworks can profoundly change society, but we think some of the plays in the 53rd Bitef program can be, let’s say it like this, at least an exercise room for such values.
As an addition to the previous question: not the slogan itself nor the whole program of 53rd Bitef should not be understood as some invitation to easily love each other again, to forget all disagreements overnight, to put love above all. That would be, in such a poisoned and divided world as it is today and hasn’t been for a long time, both globally and locally, completely irresponsible. We just think and want people to wonder if there is still so much hatred, selfishness and antagonism to go on and, for starters, only consent to – contact. Concrete, physical, psychological and emotional – contact.
How would you define the term meaningful theatrical provocation?
As in any field, provocation is meaningful only if it is not a purpose itself if it is not self-sufficient. It is a provocation that, in fact, aims to persuade us, not to force us, to indulge in an experience that may be unfamiliar to us, or at first, glance seems repulsive, foreign, too demanding, too eccentric …
Those different experiences also don’t have to be a purpose by themselves. They are not quality in themselves, but they should trigger some important mental, ethical, aesthetic mechanisms in us that, because of fear, ignorance, poverty, lack of information, difficult living conditions, have got “stuck within us”.
The long plays emphasized two years ago, had a purpose to let us experience the duration, the sense experience, and the time flow, which are all experiences and values that we neglect very much in our consumer civilization based on speed, effect, constant change of focus, technology-mediated, and therefore often very superficial perceptions.
Last year’s performances without performers were, first and foremost, an occasion to think about and experience the greatest “theme” of our lives, and which neoliberal society also wants to banish in order to sell us tons of different products and activities for eternal youth and “eternal life” – the theme of transience and death. This year, inversive plays, the ones that erase the distinction between performers and spectators, the hall and the stage, should, at first, re-initiate a sense of the Other, a desire to watch, touch, give support, act in solidarity and therefore completely renew a torn feeling of community.
What is particularly important to me is that Bitef had the most radical form of performances for years and the ones that have the best reception with both the audience and the professional public. Two years ago, it was the legendary Mount Olympus by Jan Fabre that lasted for 24 hours, and the last Legacy, pieces without people by Stefan Kegi and the Rimini Protocol collective. Both won the Mira Trailović Grand Prix.
How would you determine the place of the Bitef Festival in Europe today?
Like significantly better than a few years ago (laughs); in other words, on the right track to regaining the old splendor. This does not have to sound arrogant, though I know it is difficult, because for such an optimistic conclusion we also have objective indicators. The professional public and criticism quickly recognized, and the majority supported the new way, more problematic and dramaturgically sharpened, of “curating” the main selection, which became a kind of “work in itself”.
Of course, we neither want nor need the concept of the program to outweigh the artistic reach of individual performances, they are always more important: a good festival can only be made of great performances, but not just of a smart concept.
This more sharpened rethinking of the aesthetic and thematic lines of the main program is necessary in order for Bitef to preserve and elevate its two main, original platforms: in the completely changing cultural and socio-political climate of the 1960s and 1970s: promoting if not necessarily “new” “, it continues to be radical and to have provocative theatrical forms, as well as the promotion of progressive social values.
Additional indicators of this uplift are, for us, still a slow but certain steady increase in financial resources, both those coming from our founder, the city of Belgrade, as well as those we generate from our sponsors.
Particularly interesting is the increased interest of sponsors, which is understood as a confirmation of the work of both the artistic and the marketing and production sector of Bitef. In the second, great young women work, who have a gift and already have the great knowledge and skill needed for this job.
Last but not least: there is increasing interest from foreign guests – especially those from the region, but also worldwide: journalists, critics, artists, theatrologists and festival selectors. This year, we expect the largest number of them since I am the Art Director of Bitef: they come from the USA, Japan, South Korea, Russia, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, Greece, Montenegro, etc. One of my biggest wishes is that their reactions contribute to the placement of the work of local artists, primarily those from Serbia, but also those from the region of the former Yugoslavia, in an international context. It is also one of Bitef’s significant missions in which we have not achieved satisfactory results so far.