Steering Bitef through times of crisis


Published in CorD Magazine


Jovan Cirilov, Art Director of former Yugoslavia’s most prestigious theatre festival explains how the current economic crisis is not the greatest recession that the festival had seen during its 43 years. Bitef was not only a theatre, but also a political mammoth, which knitted, carefully and with taste, the ties between divided political worlds of the late 20th century. Jovan Cirilov shook hands and exchanged ideas with Tito, Jean Paul Sartre, Sir Laurence Olivier, Judith Malina, to mention only a few names. He spends his life travelling, but never considered leaving Belgrade.

Jovan Cirilov was born in 1931 and was a young man when the hounds of the Second World War haunted the lands of former Yugoslavia. His served time in all key theatre institutions in former Yugoslavia. He worked in Atelje 212 at the time of its foundation and managed the Yugoslav National Theatre in times of blossoming democracy of the late 80’s but also when the country was breaking apart in blood. Knowing many times of crisis, he sees them not necessarily as bad for creativity. In 1967 Mira Trailovic and he established Bitef, which put Yugoslavia on the map of world’s major theatre festivals. After 43 years, both Jovan Cirilov and the festival are still going strong.

Crisis of Capital – The Art of Crisis. That is the title of Bitef 2009. It is a logical title, but what does it actually mean?

This is, of course, the biggest crisis of economy since the beginning of Bitef. When the last big crisis struck, in 1933, I was 2 years old. Art does not necessarily suffer during crisis. In fact, a moderate crisis is good for art, because it triggers a reaction. It either makes art remove itself from the crisis and create its own world or it makes it deal with the situation using its own methods, like portraying the social aspects of a crisis in an artwork, for example.

To what extent will the crisis be reflected in this year’s Bitef program?

Ana Susa and myself as selectors had to face reductions. We have decided to go for the high-quality shows, which deliver message through diversity, rather than through impressive figures. This has proven to be an excellent formula and we will adopt it for the festival in future. So Bitef will no longer have a program made of 15-20 shows. We believe 10 is the optimal number. This would ideally include 8 shows by foreign companies and 2 pieces of domestic production. What happened this year is that Lehman Brothers sank in January and this was a sign we must immediately become aware of the crisis through our budget. By that time, however, we had already selected the first several shows for this year. As we usually select the most expensive pieces first, following the formula „I am not rich enough to buy cheap“, we already had an agreement with 8 foreign companies in January, so those pieces remained. Foreign productions are also financially supported by their respective countries. Germany, for example, supported every single one of 43 festivals. The Netherlands, Norway, Canada also help extensively. Great Canadian artist Robert Lepage is bringing the most expensive show of this year’s festival: The Blue Dragon.

You said this is the greatest financial recession in your life. Has Bitef ever faced another kind of recession? In other words, were you ever limited in your expression due to the political situation in Yugoslavia?

No, never. We never faced censorship, different to, for example, Atelje 212, when pieces by Aleksandar Popovic were forbidden. There are two reasons. No one could know in advance what shows are going to be like, at least not and detail, and secondly, there was never really anything oriented against the regime. Different to that, there was a period when the EU believed that the foreign theatre companies should not come to Serbia.

When was that?

That was during Milosevic time. One time, I was faced with a choice of either having Bitef with only domestic pieces or not have the festival. This was 1992 and I decided that the festival must survive, so we only had domestic shows. The slogan was „Bitef under the Embargo“. This truly was the festival’s deepest recession. Next year, there were already 3 foreign companies brave enough to come. Private companies, of course. A Polish, Russian and an Australian theatre company.

Have you ever faced a choice of keeping Bitef alive at the cost of choosing pieces of lesser quality, compared to selections you were making in the 70’s, for example.     

Yes. I strategically chose the survival of the festival. It felt right.

What was Bitef’s relationship with politics at the time of foundation and during the first years?

Bitef was created on the foreign-politics platform of connections of Tito’s Yugoslavia to the North, East, West and the South and, of course, to the Non-Alligned movement, even though we had perhaps not more than 10 shows from the Non-Alligned block. Mira Trailovic and I, as selectors, never aimed at politically balancing the programme. At one time, we only had the shows from the Eastern countries, and at another festival, only the Western ones, even if the political mainstream was to balance the two sides in the Yugoslav foreign politics. Yugoslavia was an ideal place for festival such as Bitef. No visas policy towards both the East and the West enabled the Westerners to come and see Grotowski and the Easterners to see Living Theatre.

What was the relationship between the Yugoslav government and Bitef?

It was excellent. They loved the fact that the festival illustrated Yugoslavia as a free society, even if there was less freedom than portrayed. So, at one occasion, as there were no diplomatic relations between Yugoslavia and Israel, Mira and I went to the Central Committee saying we spoke to Israelis and that they would really love to send a show to the festival, although we did nothing of the sort. The government thaught that was an excellent idea, so then we called an Israeli company and they came. We always strove to bring heretics, companies from Franco’s Spain, from South Africa during the Apartheid.

Bitef today?

Bitef today is information about the new theatre tendencies.

Your life has been connected to Bitef for the last 43 years. How does it feel to be connected to an event, which changed with time, throughout such a large portion of ones life?

I feel like a dinosaur of the brotherhood of world theatre festivals. There is no one alive who held such a position for 43 years.

What happened with the festival during the time of Milosevic politics?

It was basically do your job as you have been doing it so far. It was very important for him to create y sense of continuity and freedom. There was some freedom during his time. You could, for example, draw caricatures. That was not possible during Tito’s time. But Tito did allow more actual social freedom. Milosevic let the image of freedom in culture and on the other hand killed journalists who offended him or his wife. Tito did not do this. Perhaps, immediately after the Second World War, there were extreme things happening, but from then on it was getting better and better. With Milosevic, it was getting worse and worse. Historically, that time was a huge step back for us.


You spent some time with Tito. What was your impression of him?

He was a cunning peasant form the surroundings of Zagreb. I greatly respected him for his ability to grasp politics as the art of possible, unlike Milosevic, who saw it as the art of impossible. Tito had the ability to listen. He listened to intellectuals after the break apart with Russia. Modernism almost became the official political stream of the then Yugoslavia. Tito did not have a great sense of humour, so I can not tell you an anecdote from the time I spent with him. But he did have a sense of history. Once he was at Bitef, watching Danton’s Death. After the show he said, in his typical Zagorje accent: „You see, after seeing this show, it would be unfair to say that Stalin was Robespierre and I was Danton. Every moment in history has its particularities as it is true that different times have many, even if occasional, similarities.“ He did, without a question, see himself as a great historic figure.

Was he, personally, what he wanted the people to see in him?

Absolutely, he was a hard-core proletarian. He believed, for example, that he should work on self-improvement, so he took piano lessons. Tito was a very skilled hochstapler.

„Now, I am Mira Trailovic and Anja Susa is Jovan Cirilov“, you said at an occasion. What does this mean?

It means that as I was the younger part of a duo, with perhaps more freshness in my intake, now Ana has that function. Only, the difference between me and Mira Trailovic was not even a decade and I could easily be Ana’s grandfather.

How did you decide to have a co-sellector?

Belgrade City Hall representatives for culture called me for a conversation once. They asked me if it was now the time for me to have assistance with my work on Bitef. I said yes. They asked if I could propose anyone. I said Anja Susa. They said ok and that was it. The whole conversation took less than 30 seconds.

Mira Trailovic is seen as an icon of cultural enlightenment in post-Second World War Yugoslavia. How do you see her?

I see her as the public sees her. As a legend with whom I spent a large part of my life. We had arguments every day, but she never took it personally. She was truly good-spirited.

You once said that the long-time Belgrade mayor Bakocevic gave Bitef Teatar to Mira Trailovic as a well-deserved big toy. Do you plan to retire and what kind of toy would you like for yourself?

I will find my own toy within the four walls. And if it does not know to find a way in its own room, it certainly will not know how to travel the world.