Guilt and games
WIENER FESTWOCHEN: SANJA MITROVIĆ'S DOCUMENTARY PERFORMANCE "WILL YOU EVER BE HAPPY AGAIN"
By Sabina Holzer
While the audience enters the room the soundtrack of a soccer match can be heard. The game's atmosphere is heated. Sanja Mitrović is standing calmly on the stage and seems to count the entering visitors. As the light in the tribune goes out she says: “186 partisans survived“, thus folding entertainment and politics into each other right at the beginning of the performance. The message is undramatic and nearly inconspicuous: this is about survival.
The soccer match serves as overture and prime example of a social staging. The English term match already points out a complex exchange: compare, align, associate, fit, and more. Big emotions are channeled during a soccer match. Popular cultural practices are applied which – beginning with rites of cheering, patriotic songs, explicit solidarity with one's nation, et cetera – suddenly may turn into the unaccountable, violent outbursts of a mob.
This set of rules which immediately becomes tangible merely from its sound, functions as a many-layered contextualisation for the documentary performance "Will you be ever happy again" by the performer and theatremaker Sanja Mitrović, who was born in Serbia and lives in Amsterdam. It recalls the soccer game between the Croatian club Dinamo Zagreb and the Serbian Crvena Zvezda on May 13, 1990, during which a violent riot occurred. The date is often named as the accumulation and beginning of the commotion in Ex-Yugoslavia, whose antecedents however had been present in European history for much longer.
Children's games around war and violence
"When we were kids we always played partisans and Germans. We were the partisans. Partisans were great, and the Germans were weaklings", Sanja Mitrović tells at the beginning of the performance. The Germans were those who always lost and therefore were only played by outsiders. To demonstrate how much fun this game was, she explains further, it would now be replayed once more for the audience. Jochen Stechmann enters the stage and puts on a green steel helmet. He is her (playing) companion for the evening. Mitrović's memories are the performance's basic material. Stories are marked out and by replay and the employment of documentary material get concrete and touching contours. Books, drawings and photographs are projected onto a screen standing at the rear end of the stage.
What begins as a children's game and in the beginning maybe also is played a bit naively in the course of the evening unfolds to a complex structure of individual and collective experiences of war. It deals with the founding of national identities, their inscription in stories, songs and images. The factitiousness introduced via the children's game prevents false concernment, empathic representation and moralistic finger-wagging. Sanja Mitrović and Jochen Stechmann slip out of their narrative mode into various blueprints of perpetrators and victims which they play out without interpreting them emotionally. But they are so physical doing this that in especially intense moments one has the feeling that they want to dirve out history from themselves.
A story that begins in 1945 and is spinning its violent threads until today. It is told through markings: Tito's partisans, Beethoven's Ode to Joy (since 1985 hymn of the Council of Europe), the fall of the Berlin Wall, an "Aryan certificate", a European passport and money bills. Children's books full of political propaganda are unpacked, songs are sung, photos projected, stories told, and – more games are played.
Fair exchange and diatribe
In memory of Tito, who led the communist partisans against the German and Italian occupiers of Yugoslavia in World War Two, the first game is called Germans-are-cockroaches. Stechmann is the German, and when Mitrović switches on the lamp he has to run away. She chases him around the stage and kills him repeatedly. "Now you're dead again." The repetition in a children's game is enthusiasm. Until Jochen Stechmann suddenly says: "Sanja, I'm not happy", meaning his role as eternal weakling and loser. And because Sanja and Jochen are friends he is now allowed to be a partisan, too. "We are Tito's partisans!" And of course there's a children's song for that: "Death to the fascists. Freedom for everyone." And "A partisan never forsakes a comrade even if he'd have to die himself!" was the watchword.
Another game is called Fair-exchange. Negotiations and demands: "I'll give you something bitter, you'll give me something sweet. I'll give you something heavy, you'll give me something light." Lies are to be exchanged for truth, broken things for whole ones, clean things for dirty ones, and finally: "I'll give you visa, you'll give me war criminals."
Yet another game: I'll-give-you-money-and-you'll-make-me-happy. Bills are put on the table. The offer goes from 10 to 500 million Dinars.
Or: Can-you-love-me-now? The strongest trump in this game is the European passport.
All those games are unplayable. They are power games, and therefore no games at all. Although Sanja Mitrović and Jochen Stechmann set them up, they themselves lose interest within moments. It happens too easily that something goes off at a tangent while they are playing; that memories of things are activated which one would rather not be reminded of.
Like the game Telling-each-other-bad-jokes, where Mitrović suddenly says: "A man goes to the doctor. He is troubled because he cannot get an erection. The doctor asks him about his wife, asks whether he is suffering from insomnia. No, the man says, he doesn't have a wife and isn't insomniac either. 'Then where's the problem?' the doctor asks. To which the man replies: 'Not only do my friends in the army despise me; also I'm in serious trouble when I can't take part in the raping.'"
Mitrović's and Stechmann's performance is fast-paced. Driven by an impetuous lust for life, the performers stumble into the abysses of wars they have survived. They play for high stakes. While pointing out facts they also give general links which get a personal note through their personifications. They mediate the violence of wars as a lasting trauma and the impossibility of sharing it directly. Taking up threads of stories they entwine facts in order to ask questions, thus activating collective memory.
Near the end of the performance the two are bellowing: "We are the Champions / No time for losers / 'Cause we are the champions..." The hit is embedded in a chanting of agitation slogans. The longer and the louder they sing the more their bodies become distorted. It is paradox and desperate. Better play along and win, only don't be a spoilsport. After all, it's about surviving.