A Speech by Haris Pasovic

I (the Lisa Dwyer Hogg half of H&P) have had the great honour of working along side and getting to know a wonderful man over the past couple of years. His name is Haris Pasovic.

“Haris Pašović, director of the East West Center Sarajevo, is an internationally acclaimed multiple awarded theatre and film director who has been of a leading cultural and public figure in the Balkans for decades.”

Earlier this year he was the keynote speaker at the Edinburgh International Culture Summit. His speech was so inspiring and moving that I really felt everyone should read it.


“I wasn’t afraid to die. In the besieged Sarajevo, the possibility of getting killed, by a mortar-shell or a sniper bullet fired from the positions of the Serb forces surrounding the city, was almost 100%. There was no safe place and no safe time around the clock. People were killed or badly injured in their homes, in hospitals, in schools, even when they attended the funerals of their beloved ones who were killed the previous day. Besides, there was hardly any electricity in the city, no running water, food was rationed and measured in grams; no heating, no telephone lines, no public transportation or any transportation, since there was no fuel…

Every day, I used to go to rehearsals and to the office of the International Theatre and Film Festival MES, which I directed at the time. I walked and ran routinely, to avoid the Serb snipers and hoping to miss their random shelling. Strangely, I was not afraid. But, in late December 1993, I was on the street in the freezing cold, on my way to the office, and for the first time during the siege a sense of terror hit me suddenly. I continued to walk, suppressing my fear. I thought that the terror I felt emerged because I was about to be killed. Christmas time was near; it meant that the attacks on the city would intensify, since the western world would be occupied with shopping and celebrations and the world news editors would avoid news about the ongoing wars.

In early January, the Serb forces would mark orthodox Christmas by a massive shelling of Sarajevo, as was the case in the previous year. I knew Jesus wouldn’t approve of such a celebration of his birthday, but he wasn’t asked about it. So, it was clear to me, that I would be killed in the coming weeks. Quickly, I was thinking about what I should direct as my last show, as my ultimate piece of theatre. The instinctive answer was: classical Japanese theatre –Noh.

Soon, I put together three pieces- two Noh-plays and a kyogen. We rehearsed in the Festival office. We pushed the tables against the walls and spread the piece of an old silk curtain on the floor, thus creating our stage. During one of the rehearsals, Ines Fančović, a 70-years old actress, was concentrating before stepping onto the silk stage. She was in a deep, Noh-like concentration when a shell exploded in the neighborhood. I will never forget the reflexive reaction of Ines’ body, which shivered for a moment, and her undisturbed concentration by which she recovered her posture and stepped on the silk spread on the floor, chanting the lines. Ines was a great actress and played many roles brilliantly before the siege. As soon as I arrived in the besieged city, I invited her to work with me.

 I wasn’t in Sarajevo when the siege began and I managed to enter the besieged city running across the airport runway in the middle of the night, on New Year’s Eve 1992-93. UN forces were holding the airport, preventing any movement from and to the city. A UN soldier arrested me while I was trying to enter the city but I managed to convince a UN colonel, who, luckily, was drunk, to allow me to go to my city, to my home. As soon as I arrived in besieged Sarajevo, I realized that the city existed in a completely mythical universe: Hunger, Illness, War and Death…but also a strange form of everyday life including cultural events- concerts, a couple of theatrical shows and some exhibitions.

 The first show I prepared to direct in the besieged Sarajevo was called “City” and was composed of the poems about a city written by Constantine Cavafy and Zbigniew Herbert, among many others. I wanted Ines Fančović to play in it. I heard that she had locked herself in her flat when the siege began, refusing to go out. Apart from being a great actress, Ines was a real diva too. Before the siege, she was always dressed smartly and her hair was ever styled impeccably. When Ines opened the door of her flat, I saw an old woman in disarray – her hair disheveled, her dress miserable. Desperate, she was stoking the fire in a small makeshift stove, burning brochures of the theatre productions she had played in once. She told me: “Once I played a character whose last words were: “And, finally, when I make an account of my life, it turns to zero, zero, nothing but zero…”…” I looked at her and I told her to stop the bullshit and to come to play in my new show. She said: “When does the rehearsal start?” I said “Tomorrow at ten.” Since that day, Ines has played in many theatrical shows staged during the siege including “Waiting for Godot” directed by Susan Sontag.

 She also played Yama, King of Hell in a comedy “Bird-Catcher in Hell” During the performance at the school for children with special needs, she, as the King of Hell, shouted “I am so hungry, I am so hungry, let me eat, let me eat…” in such a funny way that the starving children in the audience burst out laughing. During the performances of the show “City”, when Ines, as Sylvia Plath, said in desperation; “I’ll put my head into the oven and just disappear”, another character replayed to her, “But there is no gas, Sylvia!” The adult spectators sitting in the freezing cold auditorium laughed their heads off.

 At this point we need to stop for a moment to contemplate this mysterious feature of humans – why people create and enjoy art even under the most inhuman conditions of life, often risking their own lives. The answer, which I have arrived at, is that our need for culture, arts and entertainment is a primary need as strong as our needs for food, sex and sleep.

 Our East West Theatre Company played at the National Art Festival of South Africa in Grahamstown, during the World Cup 2010. I wanted my cast – the Chinese-Singaporean-Malaysian-Italian-Bosnian-Slovenian-Burkina Faso cast – to see South Africa beyond the city perimeters, and we organized a visit to the townships near Grahamstown. While driving many kilometers through the poorest among the poorest areas, we spotted a field where local residents were preparing their festivities. Our actors and dancers immediately joined the local boys playing soccer and I went to listen to local musicians rehearsing on the stage built nearby. Next to the stage there was a 14 or 15-month old boy who obviously was making his first steps on this planet. Yet, he danced spontaneously to the music he heard from the stage. It wasn’t some baby-like dancing; it was a real dance, which followed the beat perfectly well. He responded naturally to the musical information that our ancestors passed on to us. It was clear to me, like never before, that our creative ability develops from an early age, regardless of the circumstances we grow up in.

 The primordial nature of culture makes us understand arts regardless of nationality, race or faith. In 2007, I directed the theatre show called “Class Enemy”. Nigel Williams, a playwright, placed his action in South London in the 1970s. We adapted it to Bosnian post-war circumstances. This play about juvenile violence we played in different cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for the Serbian, Bosniak, Croat and mixed origin spectators alike, and it always touched the audience profoundly. Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, saw our “Class Enemy” in a bombed building of the Faculty of Engineering in Sarajevo and invited us to Edinburgh. The Festival asked us to play in several other cities in Scotland as well. We also conducted several workshops for local young people, especially those affected by juvenile violence. In Stirling, during the workshop, I was profoundly disturbed when a teenager talked about his life and introduced himself with the words: “I am 14 years old and I am an alcoholic” The Bosnian show based on the English play, brought to Scotland 30 years after it was written, was meaningful for a young and troubled Scot. It is the nature of art, which transcends a verbal language, local history and social class.

 Sometimes, arts can transcend even the pain. In April 2012, the East West staged a concert called “Sarajevo Red Line” for the citizens of Sarajevo killed during the siege. The singers and musicians on stage played a concert for 11,541 empty red chairs placed down the main street in central Sarajevo: 825 rows of chairs placed in the way they would be put together for any other concert took almost a kilometre of the street. The rows also included 643 small red chairs for the killed Sarajevo children. Tens of thousands of people stood on the pavements and witnessed this concert for the absent audience. That whole day people were passing by the red chairs leaving flowers and messages on the seats for their beloved ones. The most impressive of all was silence, which filled the air all day long – the united silence of the living and those absent from the chairs. For a single day, “Sarajevo Red Line” transformed the entire city into something that can be called the metaphysical state of a city.

 Since then, our East West started working together with the Prime Cut Production from Belfast and Theatre Mladinsko from Ljubljana on the theatrical show called “The Conquest of Happiness.” Based on the famous book by Bertrand Russell. It will be premiered in Derry/Londonderry in the program of the UK City of Culture 2013. We decided to play the show outdoors at the Bishop Street in the center of the city. But the street is divided by the wall separating the Catholics living on one side of the street and the Protestants living on the other side in the area called the Fountain. I suggested to Emma Jordan, the artistic director of the Northern Irish Prime Cut Production and Graeme Farrow, the programmer of the City of Culture to remove the 300 m long and some 15 m high wall separating the communities in order to accommodate our show. We’ve known from the very first second that it was a utopian endeavor. Although the Northern Irish peace process has been progressing very well indeed for more than a decade, the Fountain residents have insisted that the wall remains in place. We visited them several times and explained our work and the need for the wall to be removed. When the Fountain residents learned about our show, they agreed that the wall could be removed at least for the period of the run of the show! There is a long way to go still, since now the City Council has to approve the massive and expensive operation, but again it shows that arts and happiness have made the impossible become possible – this time they have literally moved the walls.

We live in dangerous times. To believe or not to believe in culture, it is the question.

Demon in the kyogen: “Bird-Catcher in Hell” quotes Yama, King of Hell, who famously said: “Hell is ever at hand”– and Demon adds: “which is more than 
can be said of Heaven.”

In the panic-stricken, confusing times, the unexpected ideas prove to be the solutions. Art is such a surprising, yet obvious solution…ever at hand.

Beware! No romance here! Arts and culture are not the magic words, the spell that protects us from any danger.

We live in a dangerous world. Brave visionary artists are what we need now.

Unfortunately, it is not always the case that artists are at the appropriate level of their call. A number of artists in all countries simply don’t deliver well enough. Too often, opportunism and egotism suppress their art. The arts have often become too intellectual, self-obsessed and cheesy. Susan Sontag famously concluded her classic book entitled “Against Interpretation“ with these words: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”. The word ‘erotics’ here is used in its original meaning: love for life with an element of divine madness.

We live in dangerous times. They require us to be sharply focused. Many times, our focus slips away unnoticeably. When I directed the first Sarajevo Film Festival subtitled “Beyond the End of the World”, in 1993, during the siege of Sarajevo, dozens of journalists from the most prominent world media asked me the same question. All of them asked: “Why the film festival during the siege?” I answered patiently to each of them: “Why the siege during the film festival?”

Let me recall Susan Sontag once again. She said about herself: “I am a zealot of seriousness.” I believe that we need to be the zealots of seriousness.

 Since my artistic youth, my role models have been Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War; Anna Akhmatova, who wrote poetry during the Nazi Siege of Leningrad, and artists who worked in the Warsaw Ghetto. I’ve always thought that they did what artists should do.

 India has taught us about Duty. As artists, cultural operators and politicians, we have our Duty to fulfill, our Dharma. We are not allowed to fail.

 I had a fascinating journey so far; sometimes it was unbearable to get through, many times it was miraculous. If I were to choose again the way of my life, I would go along the same road. At 51, I brave the storm and I am not afraid to live.”


handsome and pretty



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