Sarajevo’s fine MESS shines light from yet more darkness

by

Special To The Japan Times

This year is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, and among commemorations worldwide, in Sarajevo, in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, there have been numerous events marking the June 28, 1914 assassination there of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie — the spark that lit a fuse that set off the conflict one month later.

This year, too, the city’s annual international theater and film festival — which started in 1960 as the Malih I Eksperimentalnih Scene Sarajevo (Small Experimental Scene Sarajevo) and is still known by the acronym MESS — used a 1914 Imperial design for its poster, which listed several works related to World War I.

Among the plays I managed to see during a three-day visit to the Oct. 3-12 festival was “This Grave is Too Small For Me,” a thrilling piece that was written by Biljana Srbljanovic and directed by the festival’s director, Dino Mustafic.

Though it focused on the lives of Gavrilo Princip and other Bosnian nationalist fanatics who shot the archduke and his wife, the play’s theme of a local youth 100 years ago felt creepily close to 2014 — what with the region’s raw scars of sectarian war, rampant unemployment and harsh economic times.

Faced with those realities, the sense of presence in watching that work at a theater just a 10-minute walk from where the shooting occurred made for a night enveloped in both excitement and dread.

Now in its 54th year, MESS may be southeastern Europe’s oldest theater festival, but the first thing I think of in terms of Sarajevo and theater is an essay titled “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo” by the late U.S. critic (and film and theater director) Susan Sontag (1933-2004). A remarkable document, that 1993 piece tells how, in the the middle of the 1992-95 Bosnian War, when Sarajevo was besieged and haunted by snipers, Sontag directed Samuel Beckett’s 1953 absurdist masterpiece “Waiting for Godot” there during its unbowed MESS.

Referring to that event, 28-year-old Selma Soaji, the artistic director of MESS since 2012, said, “Even during the war, big names like Sontag came, and they put on wonderful plays by candlelight. For the citizens, that was an extremely valuable experience, and that situation of being isolated from the world continued for some time.

“Then after the war, in 1997, 27-year-old Dino took over as the festival’s director,” she said. “He changed course with the aim of making it a landmark international event and invited such great dramatists as Italy’s Giorgio Strehler and Frank Castorf from Germany — and they all came, and it has continued since then.”

Additionally, in 2008 the festival began looking beyond Europe — and this year Mum & Gypsy from Japan featured among a roster of companies from 18 countries who staged a total of 25 works.

The Tokyo-based troupe, directed by Takahiro Fujita, staged its work “Dots, Lines and the Cube. A world and the others in the cube that shines” and also held a workshop for local actors based on their unique physical expression, and writing methods — so nurturing the pioneering Future MESS program for training young theater people that started in 2008.

“Bosnia’s theater education has always lagged behind, and we had been depending on educational facilities in nearby Belgrade (Serbia) or Zagreb (Croatia), but because of the war, rifts opened up,” Soaji explained.

“Also, after the war it was very difficult and expensive to go outside the country, and it has been very important to invite outside theater professionals with different performance methods to teach here. Now, little by little, I think we are beginning to see results”

Indeed, it’s thanks to these broadening horizons and growing personal networks that this writer from the Far East could happily engage artistically and socially with people in such a different a region. Indeed, among the many theater events I visited this year around the world, MESS has been the clear winner for stimulating and shocking works.

I only hope I can return to this festival that’s so brimming with appeal for many years to come.

This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.