One-on-one | Arts

Alban Ukaj: The problem is that the artistic community is conformist

By - 28.09.2018

Sarajevo-based Kosovar actor discusses the role of the arts in dealing with the past.

Post-war societies around the world have often witnessed how different forms of artistic expressions have been crucial in better understanding transitional justice, and other issues arising from conflicts. Literature, music, theater and film, artistic installations, photography and dance often act as spaces where victims’ experiences and gross human rights violations have become visible.

Cultural endeavors have created opportunities for truth seeking, and linking personal experiences with the collective narrative. But culture also gives the chance to express those unheard stories, ignored by oppressive regimes.

In the post-war years in both Kosovo and other post-Yugoslav states affected by war, where the wall between communities and states has continued to be impermeable, some artistic interventions have attempted to create spaces in which to build small connections for communication.

One attempt was “Hypermnesia,” a production made by Heartefact, an organization that aims to develop cultural dialogue. In the documentary theater play, actors and authors from post-Yugoslav spaces explore intimate parts of their biographies. One of the stories was that of Alban Ukaj, an actor from Prishtina.

Acclaimed as one of the best actors in the region, Ukaj lives in Sarajevo and is part of the Sarajevo War Theater (SARTR) ensemble. As he has participated in many regional cultural projects, he knows intimately the obstacles in artistic collaborations, including personally — freedom of movement between Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina is enabled only through visas.

In 2015, Ukaj had the main role in the bilingual version of a much discussed production of “Romeo and Juliet,” one of the rare theatrical productions and collaborations between Kosovar and Serbian artists since the war in 1999.

His roles in movies meanwhile have transcended Balkan cinema, such as his performance in “The Silence of Lorna,” from the Belgian Dardenne brothers. He has recently returned to Kosovar cinema after many years, playing in the globally award winning movie “Martesa.” Last year meanwhile, he won the prize for Best Actor at the Jajce Festival, for his portrayal in SARTR’s production of “Maestro and Margarita.”

Photo: Imrana Kapetanović / K2.0.

K2.0 talked to Ukaj over Skype about the possibilities and limits of art in the region to convey the voice of the victims of atrocities, and about how much the artistic community in the region has the capacity to challenge and criticize transitional justice mechanisms.

K2.0: SARTR opened in 1992, and worked right the way through the Siege of Sarajevo. It is often seen as an element of direct resistance against the violence and oppression that was prevalent in the whole city. In Prishtina, the Dodona Theater is considered to have had a similar role, especially in the second part of the ’90s, when plays and cultural activities were held right up until the start of the NATO bombings. How do you see the role of these two theaters during the ’90s?

Alban Ukaj: All theaters operated [during the Bosnian war 1992-1995], but Sarajevo was distinguished in terms of theater. And then our theater, SARTR, was established, which also had an ensemble at that time. With time, it was professionalized, taking on a poetic connotation.

However, the name that it was given from the beginning and its ambitions throughout, from the beginning up until today, made it into a more alternative theater compared to other theaters in the city — it speaks about freedom, human rights and wars. It serves to remember the wars.

The Dodona period was a form of art in the apartheid era. Dodona did not only have the classic character of hosting plays, it also hosted other activities such as concerts. It was transformed into a gallery for a period of time, and it was also used to hold meetings, book launches, etc.

I remember Faik Ispahiu’s “Macchiato Boys,” which was a kind of imitation of Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.” There’s a scene when they take a policeman hostage — the policeman was a Serb, and I remember the feeling of ecstasy that the audience experienced during the play. Meanwhile, the guards stayed outside the theater the whole time, because sometimes the police would stop the plays.

In today’s context, SARTR and Dodona are seen as important components of the collective and cultural memory of the ’90s. However, people speak about Dodona in a more romantic way, about what it conveyed up until spring ’99, rather than speaking about it as something that conveyed resistance after the war. Do you think that the role of SARTR and Dodona is, or should be, to serve as a critical voice regarding dealing with the past in the post-war period? For example by criticizing other forms of oppression, such as economic oppression…

Unfortunately, the tragedy of Balkan theaters is that positive movements in certain theaters and certain periods were dependant on certain individuals. The moment other individuals, who were employed by certain political parties, substituted them, the concept of the theaters changed.

For example, Dodona did not preserve that… I don’t know… that spirit of [director/actor] Faruk Begolli, and the people that supported him. After the war, Dodona experienced decline. It never found its way. You couldn’t tell if it was a children’s puppet theater, a youth theater, etc.

"The community has no problem raising its voice. The problem is that the community is conformist."

On the other hand, SARTR tried to preserve that old tradition, but in certain aspects it was unsuccessful. It experienced the same misfortune: The director changed. But what is positive about SARTR in comparison to Dodona is that it has its own ensemble, one that has lived through all the directors who have been and gone.

The ensemble has remained and it has tried to preserve the spirit of the SARTR, no matter who the director is. Dodona did not have this privilege. It was left to the mercy of the people. And it is not that they had ambitions to ruin it, but there was no one with the intellectual potential to transform Dodona into what it deserved to be: a museum of the ’90s — because 90 percent of cultural activities in Prishtina were being held there.

Political interference has been a common occurrence in Dodona and other institutions. Has the artistic community failed to apply enough pressure so that Dodona can have a bigger role in the cultural sphere, even in the form of a cultural museum of the 90s?

The community has no problem raising its voice. The problem is that the community is conformist. The same is happening in all post-Yugoslav countries. It is conformity.

As soon as people from the artistic community fall into close contact with the Ministry of Culture, the prime minister or the Assembly speaker, their ambitions change: From the great desire to revolutionize a museum or the status of a theater, they start to have sympathy for the political class, which says that now is not the right time. “We must wait and do it at some point.”

We often idealize the artistic community as having high moral standards, which is completely wrong. Because like in all other occupations, the artistic community is certainly corrupt, though maybe not as much as other occupations because it does not have that kind of financial capacity. But I am speaking in terms of the societal aspect, of that spirit of wild capitalism that we are witnessing in Kosovo’s and Bosnia’s respective transition phases.

Photo: Imrana Kapetanović / K2.0.

Theater, film and literature can be great tools for documenting severe crimes and oppressive regimes, but also for giving a voice to victims. How many artistic works have given a voice to victims in the post-Yugoslav states?

It is not that there were no attempts. There were, and some of them were successful, whereas some failed because we’ve continuously failed to move away from the romanticism [of war]. Even tragedy was transformed into a pathetic pathos, and sometimes went to the extreme, almost becoming a form of pornography.

That is where the opportunity was lost. The money that was meant to be used to give a voice to victims was utilized in the wrong channels, because some creators thought that they deserve to make certain films or plays by default, and that no one else does.

It is a similar perspective to that in which certain elderly actors in Albania are labelled as ‘artists of the people’ or ‘acclaimed.’ Now these ‘artists of the people’ and ‘acclaimed actors’ think that, even today, they are the only ones that deserve to make films or plays. In their attempts to become the voice of the victims, most of them have wasted this opportunity, degenerating the tragedy. In some cases, even people who had good ideas found it hard to secure funding.

I believe more in what I’m seeing lately. For example, in Sarajevo, Alen Drljević made a feature film called “Muškarci ne plači” [“Men Don’t Cry,” 2017], which portrays war veterans from post-Yugoslav countries meeting in a rehabilitation center. In the past they saw one another through the crosshairs of a gun, now they meet at the center and share their reasons for going to war. Then, there is Jasmila Žbanic’s [2006] film “Grbavica,” which tells the story of the life of a self-sufficient mother, a victim of wartime sexual violence, in post-war Sarajevo.

However, in some cases, films like these have been banned in places like Banja Luka and Belgrade. And we don’t know to what extent the message of these films has reached certain audiences, because it is more important for people in Belgrade and Banja Luka to see films like these than it is for people in Sarajevo.

If we analyze the post-war discourse about who was more of a warrior and more of a patriot… was competition between artists influenced by the same level of perceived patriotism in their art? Especially when taking into account stories that convey a tragic pathos of collective experiences…

Without a doubt, yes. The conformity displayed by certain artists has led to them changing [affiliation] between three different political parties within the space of a year.

But, on the other hand, it would be very brave, an intellectual call by a director, if we were to see a film about the killings that happened after the war [in Kosovo], the killing of journalists and politicians who did not have the same opinions as the war wing.

When I speak about conformity, I mean that no director of that generation, not including directors of younger generations, came out and dealt with this subject. We do not speak about that subject, because it is sensitive.

Photo: Imrana Kapetanović / K2.0.

You mentioned the importance of distributing artistic works to all communities that were touched by the wars in the post-Yugoslav states. You mentioned the film “Grbavica” being banned in Banja Luka in Republika Srpska. Another is “Dubina Dva” [“Depth Two”] from director Ognjen Glavonić, which reconstructs events surrounding one of the most grave crimes in Kosovo — the systematic organization by the Serbian state to transport the bodies of murdered Kosovar Albanian civilians to Batajnica in Belgrade. In an interview, Glavonić said that he had obstacles to screen the movie in Serbia’s biggest cinemas. While governments in the region continue to insist on selective history, one-sided narratives and nationalist policies that weaken opposing voices, how much opportunity is there to convey artistic works to the other party?

In this case, it is an individual’s action, because based on what happened before, it cannot be an activity or initiative of institutions. Collective responsibility cannot be given to any of the peoples who have experienced war in the Balkans.

For example, coincidentally today [September 20] is the day when tanks were sent from Belgrade to Vukovar, and there are many recordings and pictures that display the civil population of Belgrade on the side of the road throwing flowers, singing songs and drinking rakija with the soldiers who went to destroy Vukovar. And if you ask them about those recordings, they don’t know what happened or who went there, and they do not hold themselves responsible for it.

There is a piece by [Albanian artist] Anri Sala in which he finds a video showings his mother speaking about the [Communist] party and mentioning names of her colleagues, saying that they are not conforming to the party. Following this, those people were persecuted [by the regime].

Anri brings the video and asks his mother “Do you remember this?” and his mother says: “No, I’ve always been against the dictatorship. I was maltreated.” He plays the video and reads the transcript of what was said. His mother does not admit to it, saying, “I don’t remember,” and: “I think it’s me, but I don’t remember what I said.” It is a type of denial, when a certain moment comes and you refuse to talk about what truly happened.

"Although as a generation, we had many things in common, when it came to relations between our peoples, we had huge differences."

On the other hand, none of the artists want to speak about a subject that they ‘shouldn’t’ speak about, which is taboo. It is brave when someone decides to deal with such subjects and realize them. But not everyone does this — everyone has this conformity within them. For this reason, the ones that do are special, unique.

But I think that we, as public faces and artists… the moment we take on this duty and profession, we are responsible for speaking about these things. I reiterate, maybe the day will come when we can make plays or films without having to express a stance through them, but for the moment we must have a stance.

In the post-Yugoslav states, how much have artistic works managed to focus on mechanisms of transitional justice and of dealing with the past, and on barriers of communication between communities? For example, how much has art dealt with the lives of people in their attempts to deal with the consequences of war and their demands for justice?

There have been some plays. I’ve been part of some of them. It’s interesting how hard it is to accept the truth. To go past that limit and say: “Wait, let me absorb it properly first, because I’m used to something different. I’ve read something different and now I’m faced with something that I cannot break.”

For example, when we made the play “Hypermnesia” [in 2011, which included personal stories of actors from ex-Yugoslavia] in Belgrade, we were a group of colleagues from Sarajevo, Belgrade, and I was from Prishtina. Although as a generation we had many things in common — such as our occupation and our way of seeing the world — when it came to relations between our peoples, we had huge differences. It took a very long time for us to understand one another through all those nationalist nuances that just about every one of us has, and is not aware of.

Photo: Imrana Kapetanović / K2.0.

In 2015, you left the play “Romeo and Juliet.” You were cast in the main role, Romeo, in a theatrical production between Kosovo and Serbia, allegedly made in the spirit of cultural cooperation and reconciliation between the two countries. The reason you gave in the media for your withdrawal was that Miki Manojlović, the director of the play, received financial support from Aleksandar Vučić. Do you think that artists should not receive financial support from nationalist governments?

I don’t think that they shouldn’t receive support. If an artist has reached the point of dealing with a topic that a government would like to avoid, and has managed to secure funding for that project, to convince them that it is important to speak about this issue… I see that as… wow. But I don’t approve of camouflaging things to the extent that the whole problem is relativized for the sake of getting money.

Maybe for some it is legitimate, but I don’t want to be part of it because up until now I’ve built something else. I’ve had another objective. Maybe I’ve made mistakes along the way, but I’ve not strayed too far away from my path. Despite the stir that this play caused for different reasons, as a Serbian-Albanian co-production and with [it being] Shakespeare, etc., I do not suffer from the desire to be part of a project like “Romeo and Juliet” by any means.  

I had my reasons for withdrawing from the play. Others went on with it because they had legitimate reasons for doing so, and I don’t have a problem with that.

But, since in the past I’ve worked with plays in which issues were dealt with more harshly, more directly, with more pain — Bosnian-Serbian coproductions, Serbian-Albanian coproductions — I couldn’t accept that it was being labelled as the first play of its kind in the history of these two peoples. It would mean that I was disregarding all the projects, ambitions and desires that we’d had, and had realized before with other friends from Belgrade.

Often, cultural coproductions between Kosovo and Serbia have been seen as NGO projects, made for the sake of obtaining funds. How do you see this? Have coproductions in the art scene managed to create communication, or have they remained as a form of fulfilling activities in organizations’ plans?

Unfortunately, that has most often been the case. But, on the other hand, there are no ‘independent’ theater companies in the Balkans who are totally independent. You still need to be a part of some institution, to seek funding somewhere you don’t want to. I reiterate: It’s good that cultural collaborations happen, even if they are played only once. At least someone had the chance to see it. I often ask, what if it never happened? Is it better to happen once or to never happen?

Photo: Imrana Kapetanović / K2.0.

Is the role of art and the artist in building communication between two people who were in conflict in the past a utopian role?

I don’t want to crush anyone’s hopes, but it is quite utopian, which doesn’t mean we must give up. I know it sounds very contradictory, but in today’s world, believing that art will change the world is wrong. However, if we have a target and know that in a hall with 300 people in the audience, one or two of them will change their opinion, I believe this is a triumph, a success.

We must speak about the whole of that [post-war] period. There were theater shows that evoked the interest of the public and provoked a group of politicians who had ambitions to prohibit it.

There were moments when the Catholic Church, the state, the war veterans’ associations did their utmost to stop certain plays — even though they hadn’t seen them — just because they had heard that they spoke about certain subjects. Something similar happened with Andras Urban’s play [“Balkan Bordello,” 2017], which was written by Jeton Neziraj [when the War Veterans’ Organization in Kosovo made a public call to boycott the play].

I think that in that aspect, theater has more or less fulfilled its mission, but those moments have been rare. I would like to see them more often. The only attempt to change society that was successful happened in Slovenia in the early ’90s with the [art collective] Neue Slowenische Kunst.

They were the pores of culture regarding music, film, theater, visual arts. They were conceptualists, conveying a kind of common spirit, they were a kind of army that was established to change society so that it doesn’t deal with the past in a nationalistic manner, so that it is not injected with fascism — something that is currently affecting their society.

Photo: Imrana Kapetanović / K2.0.

In other post-Yugoslav countries, we haven’t seen anything similar. But, even if we do now, it is a different time, and I don’t believe it can have the same effect as it did back then. On the other hand, it is senseless how we have become immune to corruption, to the election of certain political figures. This is another space that calls for the commitment of artists, one in which they must raise their voice.

Today, in the 21st century, we have a president [in Kosovo] that has ambitions for dividing territories so that two peoples can be homogenous, so we can have two different territories with no diversity within them — Serbs on one side and Albanians on the other. We have a prime minister who says that firing a gun in celebratory events is not a big issue, and we have no one to react against this, or at most they react only through Facebook statuses. This is senseless.

This is the role of the artist, but at the moment it is not being utilized.K

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was originally conducted in Albanian.

Feature image: Imrana Kapetanović / K2.0.

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