Aleksandra Jelić is a theater director and the founder of ApsArt Center for theater investigation. Twelve years ago she came to the idea of bringing theater work into prisons: „I believed that, even in such an obscure place of suppressed liberties, it was possible to actualize oneself and that theater is one of the possible means for that“. From then on she has been working with numerous social groups and many institutions, bringing the possibility of theatrical creativity with her.

As part of the project „Otpakivanje 2014/15“ (Unpacking 2014/15) she directed the play „House of War“ which tackles nationalism in youth. Seven young people from different backgrounds made their personal and true stories into an anthology of prejudice – presented in the form of a theatrical reality show. „Applied theater calls for working with theatrical genres and forms outside of institutions, in some other social context – hospitals, kindergartens, schools“, says the director, „all with the goal of personal development or social activism“.

What is the function of nationalism?

I believe that nationalism, same as other ideologies, comes from ignorance and in part from a need to belong to a group. My interest in prison theater came from a man who was victim to an ideological principle. This man is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and in his book “The Gulag Archipelago” sums up not only his biography – twenty years spent in a soviet concentration camp – but also a wider scope on the surrounding reality. The book notes many stories from that time. It helped me understand that it’s not just nationalism that is dangerous, but any kind of exclusive ideological orientation. If we take a look at the history of humankind we see that people  are prone to being ideologically exclusive, to put the ideas before people. Whenever the idea is prioritized before people, whenever you’re able to belittle another because of a belief, there’s something very wrong with that. The outcome is not only the violation of human rights but the very essence of humanity. And to return to the question at hand – the function of nationalism – I’d say that its function is to exchange love towards one’s people, culture and tradition with hatred towards the other and the differing,  to exchange creativity with destruction.

How does it get to that extreme?

Two reasons: people have a need to identify, to  belong. On one hand it gives certain benefits, while on the other it decreases responsibility. Any ideological principle that is ready to categorize people makes segregation. When you’re part of a group it takes the role of a leader, and then the group “gives you a right” and the individual chooses lack of responsibility. That’s how sports fan groups function – I go with the gang and it doesn’t matter if I break something because we’re together and that give me legitimacy. There’s someone to stand before me. If we look at the big picture, the same goes for political parties that give their members legitimacy in illegal activities, corruption… Also – fears are a great driving point of hatred, exclusion and nationalism. Fear of the differing, the unalike. Fears come from ignorance. When we don’t know something  it spawns a fear that the “other” and the “different” might compromise us – our existence, our social status, our cultural  self-definition. We have a freedom to belong but also to accept.

Who “buys” nationalism?  

Many people, especially young people, because a young person explores. A young being is still in the making, it questions things, experiments, tries to understand where it belongs, tests limits, crosses borders or sets them up. Just look at how ready kids in schools are to throw away beliefs and values they grew up with, simply to belong to a group. “All my friends are doing it”, and they will be excluded, get labeled. Who wants that? When we’re young, vulnerable, we have an even stronger need to belong. On the other hand nationalism catches and spreads fast like a fire when it comes from political structures, since they have all the media under their thumb and can easily fabricate “cases”. That’s what we tackled in the play and that’s what’s sick. We put everything in the form of a reality show, which is not usual for theater. We did this for two reasons: because it is a format young people watch and understand, and because we wanted to show that, as an accomplice, you’re part of a bigger experiment where the “big man” tells you how you should think and act. Both today and twenty years ago we were witness to the manipulation of people and the idea of love towards one’s country. In the play we showed that this comes from the top but is disguised in different ways, making it hard for a young person to recognize.  In the performance we have a host that gives certain tasks to the characters. They’re invited to the “House of tolerance” and whoever wins the title of the most tolerant will get the passport of the European Union. Then, as time goes by, you understand that the host is giving tasks that trigger national intolerance and hatred – all instructed by a “Big Brother” figure. The audience also gets dragged into the voting. By the end they cannot believe how easily they were manipulated. Finally, participants decide to break the format and turn to the audience: “It’s your fault, you voted. You participated in this”. It remains as a question for us all – how much we participate in the bad stuff in our country with our actions, and how much by keeping quiet and accepting.

What was the youth’s take on nationalism during the making of the play?

It was interesting how they all came with the idea that they’re very tolerant, similar to how it goes in the play. In the theatrical process, however, you can keep a mask on for a short amount of time, but quickly the process moves you in such a way that you cannot pretend you’re someone you’re not. Then we realized that we’re not quite as tolerant as we had thought. There’s no people alive that can say for themself that they don’t have prejudices, no matter how broadminded and open they are. It might be that we are not aware of them. We, as people, are limited, we don’t have the broadness to see every person in their true and multidimensional form. But it’s important to keep trying.

How do we break the prejudices which nationalism is based on?

I think it has to be done systematically and through school education. We need to go way back to where grouping starts. My belief is that these things are taught in schools, unfortunately. The school system is conceptualized in such a way that it excludes, grades, evaluates and labels. There’s no accepting differences there, there’s no fathoming of it. I see it daily with my kids and while working with other children. I see what they bring from school. Half the time spent in drama workshops with children and young people is an attempt to teach them to hear and see the other and to accept them.

What about those that have already built those prejudices?

Again, I believe in group work and the theatrical process. When you’re in a mixed group you can’t avoid seeing and facing the person as they are. If we organize creative processes, various artistic processes, either from theater, visual art, literacy, music, any kind of camp where you do something, create and exchange, it’s impossible not to face the person, take off your mask, lower your barriers and see who stands behind the label. I believe prejudices are best removed through these processes and that this creates some kind of change. We need more unity, art and creativity. Let’s stop trying to find points of difference. Let’s find what connects and actualizes us.

Author: Ivan Čolić 

This text was written as a part of Divided Past – Joint Future project and it does not represent nor reflects attitudes and viewpoints of the European Union, its institutions and bodies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the text lies entirely with the author. 

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