THE FALL OF WHAT?
The bomb which exploded on July 13 1968 in the Belgrade cinema „20. oktobar“ 1 seemed at the time to have only slightly disturbed the golden era of what was then the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. This self-governed, non-aligned country proud of it’s uniqueness, was firmly ruled by its lifetime President and Marshal, the loving son of all our peoples, our larger than life figurehead, Josip Broz Tito. Our self-esteem was at all times high back then. After years of strife and tragedies and various hardships which seemed to have followed this baby-state in its several incarnations, from its birth in the years that followed the First world war, we seemed to have finally entered a period of piece and stability. Throughout the late fifties and the first half of the sixties the whole of Europe was passing through the stage of relentless optimism mostly based on the dubious idea that all wars, as far as this continent is concerned, are now over and imminent progress is well on its way. Everything around us was as bleak as ever, tragedies and misery and injustice all over the place, anger and hatred spilling out bucketfolds, but for the ordinary European citizen the vision of future as shiny as all those new and fancy TV-commercials for even fancier products somehow managed to prevail numerous obstacles. Throughout the nineteen sixties, after all, our perception of recent history started to move from black and white (past) to colour (present and future). The youth culture was blooming. Hair grew and trousers were becoming wider and wider, strict suit&tie uniform was replaced with casual wear the fluid rules of which changed almost daily. Everything older than a year or two felt like ancient history. Years seem to have carried a massive weight in those times and things somehow changed on a much larger and deeper and more dramatic scale than they do today.
Or – did they really?
Yugoslavia belonged to none of the two Europes of the era. It was neither East nor West but rather stuck somewhere in the middle. While economically it inclined mostly to the West, lured by a constant hand-out of lavish credits, politically it was particularly proud to be an independent player, opting for the third road whose creation it initiated – the policy of Non-alignment. And yet, ideologically, it kept intact all major outer features of a rigid communist regime based on the powerful personality cult with annual Chinese-style mass-jamborees dedicated to our loving ruler, as well as pompous military parades which took place each May 1, crowned with red banners and images of Marx and Engels (and Lenin) displayed at the most prominent place of (you guessed it) Marx and Engels square in central Belgrade.
Yugoslavia was – complicated, that’s as simple as that. It was comprised of too many different nations and „nationalities“ (as we used to call all those national and ethnic minorities which shared the same homeland with the „constitutive“ peoples of Yugoslavia) to mention. All together we amounted to a fairly colourful bunch and for the first time felt that we could honestly enjoy the fact. We were all Yugoslavs after all, „brotherhood and unity“ was a dominant slogan of our times, inter-marriages were common, new babies were being born, and they were all meant to be Yugoslav babies, no dark shadows of the past allowed here anymore. Some of us actually believed in all of that. Lots of us did, to be honest. Only later, we were to learn in the hardest possible way that most of it was a pretense, a well developed media image which was swiftly served to an unsuspecting audience of a quite numb and easily contended nation ready to swallow anything as long as it goes along with steady job and constant wages and guaranteed summer holidays and credits for a new car or a TV-set.
And life indeed seemed quite pleasant back in the sixties – for the first time in many years and decades. All those new apartments, modern kitchen appliances from Gorenje, Zastava cars, EI Niš TV-sets and gramophones, Elan skis – we seemed to be joining the modern world faster than we even thought we could. We had open borders, big festivals which attracted international stars, beautiful coast which brought us numerous tourists from Sweden or Germany, red Yu-passports that could take us just anywhere, our highly respected President and, last but not the least, foreign credits which were there primarily to be misused. Social stability was abundantly purchased with them, and, make no mistake, we all wanted our share of the cake.
So we all seemed to have had some good times then. President Tito most of all. But that was somehow appropriate. After all, he had worked laboriously on our behalf receiving a constant flow of honorary foreign guests such as Richard Nixon or the Queen of England, Haile Selassie or Saddam Hussein, and than he would gulp it all down with Elizabeth Taylor or Sophia Loren on top. And cameras were there to film his every move.
That’s why it’s so fitting that the bomb from the beginning of this text actually exploded during the projection of obligatory „Filmske novosti“. These „Cinema News“ were produced by the state and always shown before a feature film to remind us that no occasion could ever pass without a little recapitulation of yet another set of successes of our great homeland and it’s wise leader. The bomb ripped the screen quite literary blasting its way through a thick texture of that elaborate spectacle. The whole country trembled in shock for a while and then sort of restored its calm, but the rupture in our self-image created by this blast, even though many of us failed to realize it then, did not truly heal. It would grow larger by day, oscillate and weaver in years and decades to come but never falter, and eventually it would lead us to where we are now – straight in the post-Yugoslav era. In the times when Yugoslavia is no more.
So, yes, it is true, life after that blast would never be so happy-go-lucky as we were – at least for a short while – ready to believe. Back in the glaring spectacle of the Sixties.
IN THE LAND OF THIEVES...
That same blast serves as an ignition for the story masterfully told by Goran Marković in his new tragicomedy FALSIFIKATOR (The Forger) produced by the Belgrade Drama Theatre as part of the trans-European theatre project „After the Fall“ conceived and executed by the Goethe-institute. The idea behind this cross-border theatre project is to explore the consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall so artists from many European countries were invited to join in and offer their creative answers to the question posed. Goran Marković answered the only way he possibly could. The position of Yugoslavia in the time of the Fall was as peculiar as it could possibly be. Still stuck between the East and the West, it was a slave to it’s own growing problems which the fall of the wall only intensified. While Europe was facing renewal, we here faced utter destruction.
That’s why Goran Marković took a sharp U-turn and instead of the story of the fall of the Berlin wall offered his answer to the enigma of the fall of Yugoslavia. Even though the very idea of Yugoslavia was indeed a noble one, in reality it never truly amounted to much. Clearly, it was us, the Yugoslavs, who haven’t been capable of carrying it through. From top to bottom we gnawed and chewed on what was there for us to keep, we crumbled as much of it as we could to simply take home with us to satisfy our most basic personal needs, and we all decided to believe in a truth as simple as it is false: that in the land of thieves an innocent man is a fool... So, in short, according to Goran Marković, we all killed Yugoslavia. 2
THE GOOD FORGER
So, the story in The Forger – even though framed by squeaky clean official images (inserts from “Filmske novosti” of President Tito doing the thing he knew best: partying endlessly at his beautiful island of Brioni with world-class guests) and motivated by a large scale tragedy (an Ustasha terrorist act in the capital of the country) – is actually a tale about all of us and the way that we, ordinary citizens from the middle of the road, took active and quite irrational part in the utter destruction of our society and not just an irresponsible ruling elite or our nationalist extremists of all colours with their heads still dipped into a WW II logic. Everybody in this story cheats, everybody lies, everybody steals, often from their friends and kin, often with no reason and against their best judgement, just for the sake of it. Our hero is a man named Andjelko, the good forger. If that sounds improbable, well – it was meant to. He does engage in criminal activity – he forges school diplomas – although without charge, in a wish to help those around him progress through life. Andjelko is a die-hard philanthropist, an honest criminal if ever there was one. He is a dreamer and a fierce Yugoslav patriot. His kind of work, however, becomes so popular and the number of ordering parties so large that his inability to say no and his trust in human kindness inevitably takes him to prison. There, deep inside the infamous Zenica jail, our good forger comes face to face with another, darker side of the shiny Yugoslav coin. He is imprisoned with three political prisoners and one cold blooded mass murderer. Among them is a young kid accused of planting the bomb in the Belgrade cinema who is awaiting his trial. Good-natured Andjelko believes in the boy’s innocence and tries to help him by telling the investigator the story he has heard from the boy himself. But instead of providing help and justice, Andjelko’s action actually adds up to the boy’s misery while the good forger finds himself in the tragic position of an involuntary accomplice in the eventual execution of an innocent man.
People are simply bad in Marković’s view. Bad to the bone. The good ones would turn bad sooner or later anyway. One shouldn’t even try to do good – it’s useless. Greed and shortsighted (mostly financial) gain motivate everyone and everything in this play. No wonder that the country crumbled and fell, says Marković, look, it’s as if all it’s support systems failed at once! We all killed it with our selfish greed. And that seems to be the bottom-line of FALSIFIKATOR – no one is innocent. It is a brave and powerful, very dark but still humanistic message coming from one of our most distinctive film and theatre authors.
While some actors in the play, particularly truly brilliant Tihomir Stanić in the leading role of Andjelko, as well as Ljubomir Bandović in the convincing role of a sociopathic death-row inmate and mass murderer, offer memorable performances, others, such as young Danijel Sič in the role of a teenage terrorist somehow fail to grasp and communicate further the full intensity of the material offered them. The execution of the play is not without its mishaps. Scenography is probably it’s most dubious element, a big patch of dead earth in the form of a five-pointed star outlined by a low parapet, kind of an inner stage which actors never cross, surrounded with an endless bed of roses – kind of cheesy, really. The actual ending of the play is another of its sore points – fairly impressive but a bit strained and superficial finale which doesn’t quite resolve the story in a satisfactory way. Nevertheless, Goran Marković with FALSIFIKATOR provides the exciting mixture of laughter and horror which keeps the viewer totally engaged while in the same time offers quite a unique insight deep into the core of reality that we still live through, up until nowadays.
Vladimir Arsenijević was born in Pula/Yugoslavia in 1965. For his first novel „In the Hold“ he received the renowned Nin-Literature Prize in Serbia.
1 More than 80 people were hurt in this infamous terrorist attack, a theatre worker died, while a young female student lost both her legs. The bomb was planted in the 16th row, underneath the seat No. 6. Underaged extreme Croatian nationalist activist Miljenko Hrkljač was arrested. Eventually he would be trialed, found guilty, sentenced to death and executed by a firing squad in the early morning of January 10 1978, after his appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court.
2 If you think that this thesis is hardly likely, that people are simply not that stupid, do think again. In the meanwhile, here’s a telling example for you. Directly from Kaludjerica, the largest of several illegal settlements at the outskirts of Belgrade. Some years ago it was discovered that those living in Kaludjerica are using quicksilver in order to dispose the waste from their cesspools in a cost-effective way. This way it would simply burn through the center of the earth and end up down under, in China or Australia, wherever. So, they kept poisoning the land they lived on and everything around it including themselves and their families without once considering the horrific consequences of their action. Were they sorry? Did they feel stupid? No, they actually protested when they were forced to change their ridiculous habits. They felt that their rights were disturbed.