Los Angeles Times Interview : Haris Pasovic : Ensuring Culture Survives Amid the Horrors of Sarajevo

Danica Kirka, a journalist now based in Zagreb, is a former articles editor on the Opinion section.

Sarajevo's siege failed to strangle the resolve of producer and theatrical director Haris Pasovic. Like other Sarajevans who have refused to surrender to the pressure of daily mortar bombardments, Pasovic has doggedly insisted on using his work to express what many of his fellow countrymen feel.

Pasovic capitalized on the siege to expand his horizons. In a nondescript office building in the once cosmopolitan city's capital, the prematurely graying 32-year-old plots the outlines of his next production. Sitting in a chilly room decorated with film-festival posters, Pasovic describes his excitement in presenting theater to people starving for expression of their views and for the simple drama of live performance. He has taken productions to hospitals, refugee camps and other areas besieged by shelling, creating vibrancy in a city filled with destruction. Producing "Waiting for Godot," under the direction of American author Susan Sontag, may be among his most noted credits, but Pasovic seems equally proud of his work organizing a film festival last year.

Defiant citizens appeared for the screenings of "Dracula" and other popular films in their best clothes, jewelry and makeup--though the 20,000 people who attended the 10-day festival had to dodge bullets on one of Sarajevo's more notorious sniper-infested streets to make it to the front door.

What puzzled Pasovic was not the audience's willingness to risk their lives to come. "Many people, many journalists asked, 'Why the film festival during the war?,' " he said. "I asked, 'Why the war during the film festival?' "

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Question: Do you think the rest of the world has trouble understanding what you in Sarajevo are going through?

Answer: Sure. Sure. Now I've started to understand why it is so. Simply because this kind of experience goes beyond everything known. And it cannot be rationalized at the moment. Many people who have experienced Auschwitz or some very harsh wrong or the (marketplace) massacre, of course--they can feel it. They can understand.

When I read something about World War II right now, I read it completely differently than before the war. Before the war, it was a strange account, the facts, a generality. Now it's very specific . . . . We are angry when we say the world doesn't care about this place and so on. But we shouldn't be angry so much, simply because there are things that are not understandable at all.

When there was the earthquake--the last one in California--when I saw people lining up for the water, with the containers, they were like my brothers. I understood what they felt at the time . . . . It was like a report from Sarajevo.

Q: What does art mean in a time of great suffering? Does it have greater meaning than it would in a time of peace?

A: It's as if you asked me what food means in a time of suffering, or (anything) which is normal, human and life-producing . . . . The meaning of art in a time of suffering, a time of war, is much more intense. People are more focused . . . . You have to imagine that for more than two years there was no electricity in town, so most people haven't watched TV, they didn't listen to the radio, they didn't listen to music. We were completely cut off . . . .

You find yourself in your apartment, waiting to be killed, because your neighbor has been killed. And, of course, for one week, for two weeks, it's a kind of temporary crisis, and you can bear it somehow . . . . But after one month, two months, it's completely insulating.

I think it's even worse than a jail . . . . I've never been in jail, but as far as I know, you are cut off from the world. But most prisoners know they did something which was wrong and for that reason they are suffering the punishment. This time, first of all, you weren't in a prison. You were in your own apartment. Plus, you didn't do anything wrong . . . .

What to do? . . . . You find some kind of courage, and new pride. And then you see what is given to you--excluding the war. And what was given to people was, in our case, theater, film, music, literature, architecture and visual arts . . . .

For yourself, it was, maybe, your last exhibition, your last concert. And that gave a specific intensity. You played productions, performances, knowing that maybe it was going to be the last production, the last performance. And the audience knew the same. And that basic feeling returned us to the basic simplicity of life. We lost our egomania. We lost our self-importance. And we've (become) simply normal people, endangered, but still free in our hearts and in our minds . . . .

Q: Is it ironic that art flourished here in a time of such stress?

A: It was a very strong and active presence . . . . (But) you need normal life for the flourishing of art. I don't want to mystify the situation. I don't want people to have a hidden desire to be in a war in order to be creative in their arts. It's better to walk on the beach on the Pacific, (watch) a sunset and make poetry. It's a better inspiration than listening to grenades and being afraid to be killed or injured. But the point is, that even in such an extreme situation, the artist remains the artist; and for me, the major feature which defines the artist is his or her vision for freedom.

Q: Do you think, then, that people are seizing upon culture to remind them of what their lives were once like?

A: Culture is a part of basic human nature, of deep humanity. It is normal that people are responding, in a cultural way, to crisis. Life is not just food, it's something spiritual. People live also with feelings, not just with their stomachs. People have to have food for their souls.

It's hard to generalize. It's something to do with the rhythm of life. (Without art), it just makes us forget something that is more subtle, and more needed for our dreams.

Q: How do people respond to art in troubled times?

A: I think the response is great. It's proved by 20,000 people who line up in Sarajevo for a film festival. We had packed houses for every production. People responded to the very fact we were working under those circumstances . . . . Q: But are you able to function under these circumstances?

A: These circumstances are wonderful, compared with the circumstances before the ultimatum . . . . For example, today, when we talk, there's not such a chance to die on the spot. In all other days before this ultimatum, it was. It wasn't a fictional point. It was a real chance to die at any place, at any time in the city. And it created a special kind of behavior, a special way of moving through the city.

I remember the days when we prepared our latest productions. It was in December of last year, and it was one of the most difficult periods in the war. They was shelling every single day. Every single day, five or six people were massacred in the center of the city. And dozens were injured. But nobody was late for rehearsal. It was very exciting for me to work with people who decided to live, and to work. And from that feeling came a special strength which overcame the situation.

But honestly speaking, everything is pure luck. To survive in this city means before all, that you are the lucky one. So far.

Q: Tell me about your last production, "Silk Drums."

A: The latest one was based on Japanese classical theater . . . . We've already played 18 productions in different places in the city, mostly in hospitals, refugee centers. Because this time we wanted to approach people who are not able to come to the theater--the theater building. It was a very exciting, very special experience for all of us.

Q: What was the audience reaction?

A: It was incredible, because the first part, "Birdcatcher in Hell" is comic, so it's expected to be well-received. But the second part is a very sophisticated and a very difficult play of "Agoron." It's about the angel who fell from Earth, it's a kind of fairy tale, but in a Japanese Buddhist way, with a lot of dance. Almost every time, the entire audience was completely silent during the second part. We went to some places like the refugee centers where there were people . . . whom I'm not sure had ever seen the theater before . . . .

(At Kosevo hospital), most of (the audience) were without legs, without arms and (the lead actor) was dancing all the time. And they were shelling at the same time. So, it's impossible to transfer an experience like this one.

Q: To what do you attribute your reception? Was it the message of the play?

A: We are not talking about war, death and love in the production. We are talking about life, and dreams and freedom. Surely, it is the most difficult audience you can imagine. Because the audience has such experience, life experience. You hardly can match that experience. You have to do something at least at the same level of their experience. And we have the same experience as them. So, before we go before them, we try to translate our experience.

During the film festival, we had more than 20,000 people in 10 days. It was a major film festival. We had three theaters, 10 screenings per day. And the main hall was at the corner of . . . "Sniper Alley." They were shooting all the time. And people were coming to the screening with good perfumes--the clothes were just wonderful. They would run across the street to avoid the snipers. Then, they would come to the theater . . . .

Q: What do you think that says about cinema, about theater?

A: In my mind, it is a basic need for spiritual improvement, for spiritual development. This war defines many things, including the journalism and the culture. The journalism appeared to be less powerful than we thought before the war. Culture appeared to be more powerful than we thought before the war. It proves that culture does not only belong to the bourgeois class. It belongs to everybody. People were eager to participate in these cultural activities, professional theater, film, exhibitions and so on . . . .

This situation moved the basic social instinct to survive. I always believed that art is the basic creative force in human nature. This situation proved it for all the people, not just for the artists. It is a life force. And everything that is a life force is welcomed . . . .

Many people, many journalists, asked me during the film festival, "Why the film festival during the war?" But I say, "Why the war during the film festival?"--that is the question. It's normal to have a film festival in a big European city . . . .

(But) this is a completely different reality. So, my theater experience helped me a lot to keep going. I treat my former life as something which happened, which is over, like a theater performance . . . . It was a big, and for me, a very happy production. And now, it's over. And it cannot be again anymore. This is another reality, a second life.

Q: After the war, will you return to the previous performance?

A: No. It's impossible. It doesn't look like the original. Never.

Q: What will you do?

A: We must find something else. Something new. And when I say we, I don't just mean us in Sarajevo, in Bosnia . . . . We must find a new vision of the world.*

I don't want people to desire to be in a war to be creative. It's better to walk on the beach, (watch) a sunset. It's a better inspiration than listening to grenades. Life is not just food, it's something spiritual. People live also with feelings, not just with their stomachs. People have to have food for their souls. Preparing our latest productions, it was one of the most difficult periods in the war. They were shelling every day. But nobody was late for rehearsal.

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