Interview with Oliver Frljić by Witold Mrozek
This interview was published under the title Pracowniku, wkurz się! [Employee, get narked!]: “Gazeta Wyborcza” No. 40, 17 February 2017.
In Croatia you are not so much associated with moral scandals as with controversial performances about recent events.
The way the 1990s war is spoken of in Croatia is indisputable: thanks to thatwar we have our beautiful country, despite the fact that so many people died or were traumatized. Post traumatic stress disorder is terrible to both the soldiers and their families. But in our country we are not allowed to imagine any alternative to what had happened. In Croatia there is the so-called declaration of ‘the homeland war’. It is a very odd document, attempting to sanction what may be said about history. It was introduced in 2003 by the socio-democratic government of Ivica Račan as a concession to the right-wing Croatian Democratic Union. The latter, in turn, during the socio-democratic rule, made war veterans take to the streets. Once they protested for 500 days in front of the ministry for veteran affairs, trying to make a coup d’état, they had bottles with petrol. They were outside the law.
Can you be punished for making dissident statements?
They tried to bring charges against me, because I kept saying that Croatia invaded Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is a fact that Croatia organized Muslim concentration camps of sorts in Bosnia. But if you voice that in Croatia, they can charge you.
Under what article?
Disrespect for “the homeland war” as it is officially called.
What is the penalty?
Not just criminal sanctions. 5 August 2015 had been the 20 year anniversary of the “Storm” operation, in which 100 thousand Croatian inhabitants of Serbian descent were expelled from the country, some of whom were killed, the exact numbers remain unknown to this day. The anniversary of this war operation was celebrated like a great national holiday. In the National Theatre in Rijeka, I made a performance The second war, it paraphrased the title of Simone de Beauvoir’s The second sex. I invited five women of different nationalities to tell their story of that operation. The media, not only right-wing, but also mainstream, lynched me. Over 200 people tried to force their way into the theatre during the performance. There were war veterans and fans among them. Then, they were blocking the entrances for over three hours, so in the end, the police cordoned us off.
What were those women taking about?
One of them had her husband killed by the Croatian army, and his body thrown into a river. Another came from a Serbian village and was a witness in the Hague trial against the Serbian criminals. Yet another had her father killed and was on the verge of dying of hunger during the war. However, the majority of society accepted the story that the Croats were victims only.
Were there similar protests in the case of Aleksandra Zec? It is a story of a 12-year old Serbian girl murdered along with her family by the Croatian police in 1991.
The media lynch was there too, although less significant. The majority of the media cannot understand that I don’t divide victims following the nationality formula.
When you received an award in Belgrade for that performance was it perceived as betrayal of your country?
Yes, it was. I have a distance towards awards. Earlier at the same BITEF festival, my Zoran Đinđić, about the assassinated Serbian prime minister, was awarded. In fact, the jury is always international, but after the victory of Aleksandra Zec Croatian media wrote that I received an award from Serbs for spitting on Croatia. Serbian media, on the other hand, called the award for Zoran Đinđić an element of an international conspiracy against Serbia. It is a schizophrenic situation, no one looks at my performances from the artistic perspective.
But you wouldn’t like your art to be perceived as art for art’s sake, would you?
No, but my art is negated when it is made part of national conflicts. And two grams of brain are enough to see that I deal with the problems of societies above national divisions.
Do you consider yourself a Croat?
No, I don’t. I speak Serbo-Croatian and have no nationality. This is inconceivable in today’s Croatia. And what is even more inconceivable is that an “anational” person who believes he is speaking Serbo-Croatian rather that Croatian, has become the director of one of Croatia’s national stages.
Are you allowed to say that it is Serbo-Croatian rather than Croatian or Serbian?
You can do that, but you risk being beaten on the street.
Do you really think you can live without nationality?
I belong to the communities that I have chosen. And not to those which are designated by the language I speak, or that I was born in Bosnia. I build my identity through my work. I am a father, a director, a person struggling with depression. I pay my taxes in Croatia. I do not feel the national identity, but I pay them for the common good, for education and health care.
What is Yugoslavia to you?
An idea which was not fully implemented. A lost opportunity for the South Slavic nations and the working class to become an authentic political object. I perceive Yugoslavia more as an emancipation idea than its real implementation. The fact that after 26 years in Croatia there is still an informal ban on speaking about Yugoslavia in positive terms, tells us a lot about the potency of this idea.
In Serbia, on the other hand, it is usually described in positive terms, isn’t it?
There are different discourses there, but usually about the “first”, unitary and centralized pre-war Yugoslavia, under the Serbian king and with the capital in Belgrade. I am not nostalgic about the “second” Yugoslavia either, I have a distance towards the states. But it is a fact that in Yugoslavia the quality of life was higher, there was efficient free health care and employee self-government.
There was also the rule of one party.
Yes, but I think that today’s democracy doesn’t represents anyone. A democracy cannot exist without politically competent citizens. A politically illiterate person is unable to make a good political choice.
Do you vote in elections?
No, I don’t. I have a problem with democracy. Today in the United States for instance, there are attempts to institutionalize an apartheid of sorts within a democratic mandate.
The majority of Americans voted for Hillary Clinton.
According to their election laws, Trump won. Anyway, the majority of Turks voted for Erdoğan, and probably in a moment the majority of French will choose Marine Le Pen.
But if Clinton got more votes, there wouldn’t even be those attempts to introduce entry bans for the citizens of seven Muslim countries, which you refer to as apartheid.
Hillary would continue the USA’s aggressive interventionist politics, just like the old colonial states which keep pursing their interests, providing fuel for terrorists. Was it better in Yugoslavia with the one-party system where people felt safe? In this Croatian parliamentary democracy, someone broke into my and my girlfriend’s flat, spat on me, and attacked me on the streets of Rijeka and Zagreb.
Today’s democratic institutions do not belong to society as a whole. For example, the theatre. Only a small percentage of people go to the theatre, many of them like workers do not understand that language. When I try to change the languaging, make it more understandable, my theatre is damned as being not artistic enough.