I was honoured to be invited to present work at this year’s Belgrade-Irish Festival by Dubliner Jas Kaminski, director of the festival which is in its 3rd year.
I had approached Jas to let him know about my photo-documentary project “Journey to YU (in the footsteps of Rebecca West), about Dragana Jurisic’s extraordinary RHA and Belfast Exposed exhibition “YU – The Lost Country”, when it was but a Kickstarter project, in December 2014. The three of us met for coffee in Temple Bar when he was home for Christmas, after which he said he would like to schedule our project about Rebecca West, Dragana Jurisic’s photography and former Yugoslavia as part of his 2015 festival. In a world that is full of waffle, and “plans” that don’t see the light of day, fair play to Jas for seeing this one through with flying colours.
True to his word, he flew both myself and Dragana to Belgrade on March 14th, and kindly hosted the world premiere of “Journey to YU (in the footsteps of Rebecca West)” to a packed house (there weren’t enough chairs for everyone), in UK Parabrod, a gorgeous 1920s Belgrade Arts Centre whose name means “Steamship”.
The audience was wide-ranging, from a Serbian Orthodox priest and his family, to Dragana’s mother, sister-in-law, cousins, to the cool intelligentsia of Belgrade. It was nerve-wracking premiering work which touched on sensitive topics such as the recent wars and its traumatic effects in front of such an audience. How can I put this, we were the opposite of smug, and ready for any kind of landmine to explode. So you can imagine the relief when people poured out of the screening extremely moved. Apparently the personal truths recounted in the documentary managed to sidestep anything that might be considered partisan or offensive to anyone. Phew! Dragana’s beautiful, lateral images as she followed in Rebecca West’s 1930s footsteps were another emotional and aesthetic boon. So it was a huge success, and I am very grateful to the team at Belgrade-Irish Festival for giving us this opportunity to premiere Journey to YU in Belgrade itself – also highlighting the connections between Ireland and the intriguing region. Journey to YU… was repeated once more on March 18th to another fascinating audience, many of whom came out teary-eyed, in empathy and recognition at what they had just witnessed, and in admiration of Dragana’s brave art.
On St. Patrick’s day itself like a good cailin I donned my Sharon Beatty Emerald Green Dress, and made my way to Belgrade University’s Department of Philology to deliver a talk on the amazing WB Yeats, in introduction to an excerpt of “Just the Lads” Balkan version of one of his Plays for Dancers, “The Dreaming of the Bones”. It was a heartening and energising experience to share the news of WBY and his eclecticism to these young Serbian students, who soaked it all up for future reference.
Next stop was the floating restaurant Corso, where his excellency the Irish Ambassador to Greece and the region, Noel Kilkenny, ceremoniously turned the Ada bridge green after sunset in honour of our patron Saint. It was a wonderful evening, in the presence of Irish living in the region, as well as Ambassadors of several other nations. I was delighted to see Garret Tankosic-Kelly, originally from Limerick, arrive from Sarajevo (where he has been living for more than two decades), with his partner Nerma Sojic adding his charisma into the mix. Belgrade is well known to be a party capital, and many of us proceeded to dutifully burn the candle at both ends. Life being short, of course that approach is de rigueur to make the most of such rare and special opportunities for “inter-cultural dialogue”!
On Friday evening, BIF presented my TG4 documentary “Dance Emergency”/ “Damhsa na hEigeandala” to an intrigued and very engaged audience in Parabrod’s lovely cinema space. A lively post-show discussion ensued. People were fascinated to discover this unknown, embodied Bohemian dimension to Ireland during “The Emergency”, and of course were enthralled by Olwen Fouere’s riveting performance as the exotic Irish-German Erina Brady. Fouere’s voice as Rebecca West had also stopped quite a few audience members in their tracks in “Journey to YU…” earlier in the week. There was also a promise from a Serbian Dance Afficionado to translate the script for Dance Emergency, which is appearing in German and English in Tanz Magazin next month, into Serbian. That would be wonderful – I’ll keep you posted…
As part of the BIF programme I was thrilled to catch a luscious 35mm print of Neil Jordan’s first film “Angel” at the Kinoteka, as well as Brian Willis’s gorgeous feature “Short Order”, including a discussion with the producer himself who was in the house with his brother Ian.
Lisa Hannigan brought the packed house down with her dulcet tones as festival headliner in Duomo and made us all proud to be Irish. For her finale she performed a jam with local band Stray Dogg (who supported), and did a Sean Nos style rendition of Seamus Heaney poem Anahorish. Magic. And yes, we watched the rugby, in an Irish pub of course.
As you can imagine, the 9 days were action-packed with other inter-cultural extra-curricular activity like dancing to live Balkan Bossa Nova at one of our (several) new friend’s birthday party until dawn (it would be rude not to!), and checking out a rave with the Bosnian Beatshakers in top Guardian-recommended nightspot Mixer. Yes, we familiarised ourselves with Rakija. Another old Dublin friend, Orla Rutten, jumped at the opportunity to discover Belgrade and catch up over strolls in Ada (Belgrade’s answer to the Hamptons), flying across from Holland. We were lucky to be accommodated in funky Belgrade hotspot Smokvica, where you just had to sit out in the sunny courtyard, or down in the buzzing restaurant area to connect with the pulse of cool Belgrade. This is a buzzing city, full of upbeat energy.
I’m glad I got to meet the busy Dijana Milosevic of DAH Theatre, for coffee and a cake in her sister’s exquisite cake shop, the poetically titled Little Prince. I was fortunate to encounter Dijana at the “Theatre and War” Symposium at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in January, which led to her short and significant contribution to “Journey to YU (in the footsteps of Rebecca West)”. Among many other projects, I was intrigued to hear of her current important work with “Women in Black”, establishing a female court for female survivors of violence and rape during the war – which will emerge into the light of day this June (marking the 20 year anniversary of Srebeniza), in an 800-seater theatre, so I will be keeping my eyes peeled for that.
After the solar eclipse, which I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of through a public telescope while out on a run through Kalamegdon / Belgrade Fortress (While making an effort to train for the 10km “Great Run” in Phoenix Park on April 11th) our final event was another presentation on the cosmic world of WB Yeats at Kulturini Centar Beograda on World Poetry Day. The place was jam-packed – with many poets in the house, we were told. We treated them to a select few of Donnacha Dennehy’s settings of Yeats poems performed by Dawn Upshaw and the Crash Ensemble from his CD “Gra agus Bas”, after an introduction by yours truly, followed by an excerpt from my radio documentary “WB Yeats – Words for Music Perhaps”, renditions of the poems by Liadain Kaminska ni Bhraonain and Joan Somers Donnelly (from Just the Lads theatre company), and a short presentation by local PhD candidate Stefan Pejic, including Irish poems translated to Serbian. So there was something for everyone in the audience.
I am writing this now in Temple Bar Gallery & Studios (alas my final week moonlighting here) so have made it home in one piece and live to tell the tale! Belgrade-Irish Festival was a fabulous experience, and huge thanks are due to the BIF team, Jas Kaminski, Aleksandra Samardzik and Nikola
For all their hard work and good humour in putting all of this together. Thank-you for an unforgettable nine days which will hopefully snowball into more wonderful intercultural connections between our two countries, and ourselves. I could go on, but better to stop here for now! To be continued…