Trails is an audio walk with a difference. Using hotspots and wifi signals, attendees are guided to certain locations across the city and listen to stories these places played in the country’s bloody journey to independence. But the piece also has some of Mehmeti’s personal history: we begin at his childhood flat, above one the biggest markets in town, and trawl through its tragic side streets and former dance clubs to a place where Mehmeti’s close friend, Adrianna (Ferizaj’s theatre is named after her), was killed during the nineties during the occupation by Serbian forces. Mehmeti, a young student in those days, says that merely walking through Pristina’s streets felt like occupying the corridors of power. His audio walk was something that came out of the very fabric of Pristina’s buildings and could not be done on stage.
I Am My Own Wife, an interactive play about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transgender woman during Nazi and Stasi Germany, challenges Kosovars’ phobic attitudes towards transgender people and the LGBTQIA community. For its director/activist, Kushtrim Koliqi, theatre and activism go hand in hand. He says he was motivated to direct the play because in Kosovar society, it is okay for gay and transgender people to be onstage but not for them to be a part of real life. For him and for the star of the show, Adrian Morina, who suggested the play to him in the first place, presenting such a play brings these topics more into the audience’s social discourse; when I was in Kosovo, Morina was interviewed by an underground LGBTQIA magazine that felt emboldened by the play to contact him directly. Morina, who has an eclectic presence onstage and plays all thirty-plus characters in the show, says that the part of the Kosovar constitution about freedom and free speech has to be defended, and by doing the play so openly and challenging people, he is defending people’s right to be whoever they wish.
It is this kind of patriarchal oppression that the Serbian play Balava by Dunja Matić explores. The play features two generations of Serbian women struggling with generational differences and the fight for female emancipation—during the Kosovo conflict, a large number of Kosovar women were gang raped by Serbian forces. Balava was shown in the heart of a country that still struggles in its relations with ethnic Serbs, and Jeton, as curator of the showcase, felt it was important to bring a message of collaboration and hope to Kosovo. Like the others, Balava explores form to give voice to those whose opinions are less heard.
Kosovo is no Belarus or Russia, where artists are censored and risk their lives every day to make work, but it still controls its artists through bureaucratic means.
A Beleaguered Conference and a Missing Culture Minister
The showcase’s conference addressed many of the issues in the country’s theatre industry, including the state’s insistence on total control of its national theatre, the lack of options for students wanting to study theatre (there is only one university course), and the law that city and state theatres must have ensemble companies in residence, which Jeton tells me he is against because it means actors can’t choose the projects they want to work on or the directors they want to work with. The conference was attended by the deputy culture minister, Engelbert Zefaj, in place of the minister herself, Vlora Dumoshi, who pulled out at the very last moment.
On the one hand, Zefaj promised five million euros to help the beleaguered arts, sports, and youth sectors through the COVID-19 pandemic (he said the sports industries would benefit first and soon, though I was told it was promised months ago). The deputy minister, as part of a no doubt carefully prepared speech, also insisted the government should remain in full control of the country’s Teatri Kombëtar because “an individual on their own could not be trusted to look after it for the public good.” In response to this, Mehmeti angrily interjected that “theatre needs personalities.” There was no response from Zefaj on this. Consensus, I think we are all agreed, does not always make great theatre. The deputy culture minister, however, left after around twenty minutes of the discussion. (I contacted Dumoshi for comment several times but have received no response.)
Mehmeti exasperatedly told me that the Kosovar government is not corrupt, just too lazy to change how things are. He cites several visits from the UK journalist and cultural policy adviser Simon Mundy, who came after the war as a representative from the European Council to help kickstart a cultural policy for Kosovo. His ideas were welcomed by the government, but never acted upon, although this response could be attributed to a justified fear over foreign intervention...