This interview originally appeared on Kosovo 2.0. Link here (available in English, Albanian, and Serbian). Click on the original link for Atdhe Mulla’s great photos! This interview with Belgrade-based director Andrej Nosov was done the day after a great performance of Martin Sherman’s Bent in Prishtina, a story of freedom and love set in WWII Germany.
“Bent” is not an easy play to perform — particularly in homophobic Kosovo. Written in 1979 by American playwright Martin Sherman, “Bent” tells the story of Max, a gay man living in pre-World War II Germany who is sent to a concentration camp in Dachau. He scrapes by using his wits, by claiming he is a Jew and not gay. In the process, he kills his lover, Rudy, under the eyes of Nazi officers, and prostitutes himself to receive favors at the camp. He forms a relationship with a fellow gay prisoner, Horst, who teaches him that survival is not the same as freedom. Groundbreaking when first performed, “Bent” shed light on a little-known segment of World War II history. Perhaps more importantly, the play tackles the complicated and linked natures of love, identity and freedom.
Thanks to a collaborative effort by LGBT rights organization CEL Kosova, Civil Rights Defenders and the Hartefakt Fund, Serbian director Andrej Nosov’s adaptation of “Bent” came to the stage in Prishtina at Oda Theater this week. Andrej Nosov worked as a human rights activist with the Youth Initiative for Human Rights for many years, and currently is the director of the Hartefakt Fund, a Belgrade-based cultural institution that produces alternative works of theater (this is the third Hartefakt Fund production to visit Kosovo). Kosovo 2.0 sat down with Nosov to discuss the social and political dimensions of the play.
Kosovo 2.0: Why did you choose to produce this play in Serbia, and how did it come to Kosovo?
Andrej Nosov: It’s a very personal question of identity, a question of borders and a question of who am I and who are you to stop me from doing what I want. Many people told me “you might have trouble [producing this play], you might have incidents” — but through my experience I’ve figured out that when you want to do something, you never have problems.
If you have any thoughts like, “Oh my god, will this happen, what will happen,” you will have problems with yourself, and you’ll have problems with other people. When you really want to do something, you don’t have any troubles. And that happens, actually, in the play — when you want to survive, as the main character does, you do whatever. We can discuss the morality of killing his boyfriend in the middle of the camp during their encounter with Nazis; what I’m saying is that it’s a question of choice. It’s important for me that it’s a question of choice. I would like to have choices in my life. That’s what we need in all of the Balkans. Politicians, and society, they put us in a position where you don’’t have a choice. On a personal level, I want choice.
It’s completely normal to me that my plays are showing in Prishtina. For me, it’s like I’m going to see cousins — it’s very interesting that this is the third Hartefakt production coming to Prishtina, this time done in cooperation with CEL Kosova. It’s so important that there are groups of people in all of the former Yugoslavia trying to fight for freedom and the liberty of those who are marginalized. So we got the invitation, discussed it, then we got our friends to help us, and here we are.
Kosovo 2.0: In past interviews, you’ve said that “when we belong to a majority, by default we need to oppress minorities.” In that sense is this play for the majority? Is it a way to implicate them in the play?
Nosov: The majority, including the majority here in Kosovo, will always oppress minorities. The biggest question is, is there courage in the minority to stand up, shake hands and say “lets work on my position. Lets find a way not to beat me. Let’s do it.”? Of course, there’s the human rights agenda — but those are papers and principles. In normal life, you need to speak to people; when you share a room with someone you need to agree on how you’re going to share it.
Many people who came to see this play said “but you don’t have any dick in the play. You don’t have two men fucking each other.” And I was like, being gay, yes it is about sex, and sex is important — but it’s also about connection with people. So why do we need to have this in the play to say it’s a “gay play”? You can take some of the straight plays and have these things and that’s completely fine.
It’s a question for the minority [LGBT] community as well, about who they are. There are very concrete sentences in the Martin Sherman text where you can see the gay perception of the gay community, and it’s a very important part of the play. There’s a very good line that Alban Ukaj (who plays the character of Horst) says on stage, that gay people can be racists, fascists, geniuses, intelligent people — they can be whatever they want, they are just people. And that’s it, actually. Many times when we fight for someone’s rights, we think that the group we are fighting for is perfect, and the same applies to the majority.
Kosovo 2.0: The protagonist, Max, has a choice between survival and freedom — the freedom to be who he is. What happens when survival comes at the expense of one’s identity?
Nosov: In Serbia, there’s a saying: you can survive everything besides death. And that’s the logic of this guy (Max). The other thing is, you need to live your life. That’s how I defend him. In our lives we do very bad things, but we want everyone to see us as good people, because we have this religious morality that says you need to be good. We wake up in the morning and we hate. I think all of us are evil. This guy did something that we on the outside can say was really bad — he says I’m a Jew, he says I’m not gay. Many people thought that the character of Horst is connected to me, because he’s an activist, but I’m not that type of guy. What I’m saying is that it’s normal when you do evil things to survive.
Kosovo 2.0: If there was a real sort of redemption in this play, if Max were to transform, would the play have been less powerful?
Nosov: I would love to believe there is a space where people transform. But people don’t transform, because people don’t have choices. Because we believe it’s OK and fine to get married and have kids, and know that every night we’ll dream about our best friend from childhood. Because we’re not honest. Because we don’t want to say “it.” We don’t want to say “I hate you for bringing me here to this interview.” It’s not proper, and it’s a question of the structure of society that dictates where you need to go and what you need to think about.
Kosovo 2.0: When Max overcomes his self-hate in the last moments of the play and decides to sacrifice himself… Is that freedom?
Nosov: But he didn’t sacrifice himself, he just said what he feels. When he kissed Horst for the first time, he was honest for the first time. Horst woke him up, in a theatrical way, at the end of the play. Alban Ukaj says “I need to die,” and he does that, and then when he is dead Max comes to him very honestly and says “I love you, I’ll do anything for you, I never touched you, I wanted to touch you.” And I decided to wake him up, because this is a very small change, but we need to forgive people for their evil.
I know that’s a question for very closed societies, and you will see many gay people scared to even think about these things. It’s very similar in Serbia and Kosovo — on this personal level it’s very hard, and of course you need to have courage and you need to fight for your rights. But on the other hand, what can you offer me if I do that? That I’m going to die and everyone will hate me? My family won’t invite me over for Christmas/Bajram? What are you going to offer me as a society? This position is somehow Max’s position: you tell me I need to take that choice? And so then you’re going to beat me? Thank you very much. I’m not saying that I’m against outing, I’m just saying that it’s very hard.
Kosovo 2.0: Is that kind of self-hate more difficult than the hate that comes from outside?
Nosov: Absolutely. When we were preparing the play, we were in isolation for seven days and I decided to put Alban Ukaj in a very difficult position. I gave him things for the concentration camp, and in the middle of the night I put him on a path that leads to a very dark and bad forest. After the first step, he came back and said, “please don’t do this to me.” What do I want to say with this? I want to say that we cannot understand how hard living in that forest is, with all of your fears. We can talk about it theoretically, but we can’t know what it’s like to live with it every day, with this forest around you, where you need to move things to see the light. I believe that it’s so, so, so important that there is a space in society where you can change yourself, where you can make decisions, if you understand.
Kosovo 2.0: Do you think that this sort of “going through the forest” has to happen before you can dismantle the hate that comes from outside?
Nosov: Absolutely. Electricity, money and oil can come from the outside, but honesty and really living your life normally cannot come from outside. There’s no EU for that, no international organization that can do that for you. I say this because of our politicians. They have to, have to, have to, give choices to people. That is their role, not to govern — that’s been their role for the last few centuries.
I’m so happy that the mayor of Prishtina, Shpend Ahmeti, showed up last night. I’ve known him for a long time, but it’s such an important gesture for gay people living in Prishtina. I don’t want to damage his career, but many people from the community were afraid to go, worried about who would see them there. But the mayor going there sent a message to them that it’s fine. That’s the choice that you are being given. I think it’s a great step by Shpend Ahmeti.
Kosovo 2.0: Something that was unexpected was the humor in the play. If you have a cursory understanding of the play and what it’s about, you wouldn’t expect to laugh. What do you think that does for the play, and for the audience?
Nosov: It makes the audience open to hearing what you have to say. When we talk about the Holocaust and cry, I believe that the victims of the Holocaust would say “fuck you, idiots.” What do they [Holocaust survivors] get from our tears? Nothing, because we’re organizing a holocaust right now in Syria. So, did we learn something from what did in the past? No. And that’s the point. Again, how do you behave in front of the Holocaust? You need to cry. How do you behave in front of violence? You need to be scared. There are very proper decisions determined by our society, our parents, our religion, that dictate how you should behave.
Kosovo 2.0: This is the question that I left the performance thinking about… Is this story one of defeat, or of victory? Or should we not be thinking about it in those terms?
Nosov: Victory of whom? The point is that there is no victory. Whenever you finish with something, there’s a new battle. You should be proud of yourself, but I think that’s the biggest problem with what we do and think — this goal achieving agenda, like “wow, I finished my schooling, now I’m going to go get a job.”
For me, the most important question is love. All the other things are stupid. And it’s highly political. The only political thing left is love. All the other things are not interesting. They’re technical, they’re put into us not to think about love. And when I say love, and I don’t mean it in the “Beyonce kissed someone” way, I mean the profound feeling of loving the other person, finding a way to protect the person, finding a way to be in a connection. Human connection is completely bordered by different kinds of prejudices and stereotypes — religion, politics, economics, and all those things. Can you imagine if all the people in Prishtina were to stand for a minute and think about people they love? Not about the people who destroy them, not to fight against something, but to fight for something? That “something” means to fight for a life that would be better. After that our societies would be completely changed.