& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Cafe Sarajevo - episode 1



The conflict that engulfed former Yugoslavia in the 1990s is consigned to history and largely forgotten. It’s been overtaken by many heinous wars and atrocities across the world. The genocide in Rwanda occurred almost concomitantly with the genocide of Bosnians, Muslims and other minorities by Serbian war criminals. Then, of course, 9/11 altered the world irreversibly and the “global war on terror” legitimized Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The fissures that emerged in the former Yugoslavia as it rapidly imploded during the collapse of Communism, led to a horrific war that resulted in ethnic cleansing on an unimaginable scale.

At a time when swift action could have ended the misery of millions of minorities in this multiethnic society, Germany’s continued prevarication delayed the involvement of the NATO forces. Germany couldn’t muster the gumption to invade the former Yugoslavia because of its Second World War history.

Finally, in the mid-1990s, after the genocide in Srebrenica and Markale, the Clinton Administration decided in favour of NATO intervention and ended the war, and even brought the war criminals to face Nuremberg-type trials.  

However, we suffer from selective amnesia and easily forget the lessons learnt from these tragedies. The main lesson is that almost all these tragedies are brought upon us by charismatic leaders who we elect and bring to power. We continue to vote for leaders who unleash hatred against minorities to legitimize their control over power.

The Bosnian War has to be viewed from the prism of the rise of globalisation and ethnic identification. Globalisation began in the 1980s and took flight in 1990s changed the world as we know it. Corporations became global entities, becoming parallel power structure, often rivalling governments in their influence to shape policies. 

Simultaneously, and paradoxically, ethnic identities also became increasingly important to large sections of people in many parts of the world. Nationalism, already under a threat from globalisation, was further battered by ethnic groupings that focused on subnational identities.

The collapse of the consensus on globalisation following the 2008 economic crisis resulted in the intensification of subnational identification and its most significant manifestation has so far been the rise of xenophobia. 

Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump capitalized on this anger and changed the political dynamics of the world. Misogynistic, xenophobic, fascist sentiments that had hitherto remained at a subterranean level were menacingly and suddenly emerged to the surface to become the mainstream political ideology of elected governments.    

Any creative process that tries to portray this fearsome phenomenon of the freefall and imminent end of liberal ethos would necessarily have to abandon linearity.  It'd have to transcend the limitation of form.  

Bluemouth Inc. a Toronto-based “performance collective that creates original, dynamic, immersive” performance events performed Café Sarajevo - episode 1 in Toronto at the Summerworks festival.


An interactive, multimedia, theatre production, it was stunningly original in its presentation and in the innovative use of media technologies. The manifest outcome was the transformation of the audience from passive consumers of art to active participants in the narrative.

Bluemouth Inc. used a video wall, music, narration by multiple actors, digital and GPS technologies, customised video recordings for individual members of the audience to supplement the live performances.  All these devices build upon and complement each other to create an impact that was aural, visual and physical. 


The attempt was to depict the global upheavals such as the refugee crisis and xenophobia of the western societies. The structure was deliberately kept nebulous, easily adaptable, changeable and one that enabled constant improvisation. 

The narrative was loosely based on Lucy Simic and Stephen O’Connell’s trip to Sarajevo and in particular Lucy’s reminiscences of the historic city of her roots. It linked the trip and the history of the Bosnian conflict to the social unrest of the late 1960s and the early 1970s and to the present day crises triggered by Trump.

A seemingly obtuse debate between Noam Chomsky and Michael Foucault became the launching pad for the performance, where Chomsky appropriately declares that it'd be perfectly legitimate to oppose and fight the state and defy its anti-people policies.

Visually, Cafe Sarajevo - episode 1 was a surfeit of images - of Sarajevo, of the women’s rally held in Washington DC after Trump became the US President, and unending collages and raw footage. 

Different members of the audience enacted and read different parts of the narrative. The most telling narrative is the debate that Simic has with an owner at a local coffee shop over whether the coffee served is Turkish or Bosnian.

There was roleplay, too, with members of the audience becoming characters in the narrative. There was a constant sense of being overwhelmed by all that was happening during the performance, and a clear sense of loss of control over what one should experience - whether to much caramel popcorn, or sip coffee. 

In all likelihood, that was the intended effect - as it accentuated the cluelessness that most of us feel about our world.

Café Sarajevo was my third experience of vicariously living through the Bosnian War. The two novels that I’ve read that are linked to this enormous tragedy – Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo and Avenger by Fredrick Forsyth – are both tangentially connected to Canada.

Galloway is Canadian, and in Forsythe’s Avenger, it’s the Canadian billionaire Stephen Edmonds who hires the ‘Avenger’ Calvin Dexter to avenge his grandson’s murder in the Bosnian War.

Forsythe’s novel is a formulaic nail-biting thriller that keeps the reader on the edge as the story unfolds to tantalizing end a day before 9/11.

Galloway’s novel is a fine work that carefully constructs the shattered and disintegrating lives of is the story of Arrow, Kenan and Dragan as they come to terms with the reality of a war-ravaged city that they have lived all their lives.

When I reviewed it about four years ago, I’d said, “To Galloway’s credit, nowhere in the novel does he ever mention the siege from a macro perspective – Serbian forces that surrounded the outlying hills of Sarajevo are never named, and neither are the Bosnian government defence forces named.

The novel shows there isn’t too much to choose between the attackers and the defenders and depicts the daily trauma of living in the city that is changing forever, its inhabitants slowly wilting, decaying, and disintegrating.”


Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=42&v=pxVQXtWLNaI

Photo: http://summerworks.ca/wp-content/uploads/marcato/CAFSARAJEVOepisodeI.jpg

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