Exploring Postwar Privatisation and the Environment Using Collaborative Theatre

In the middle of the room we placed a white paper with the word OKOLIŠ on it. In Bosnian okoliš means environment, that thing that surround us. I’m in Bosnia again starting a new theatre/art project with ten young people, one video artist and one teacher from the Prijedor area. This time we are going to explore issues around climate and environment as a part of the wider international project, Picturing Climate. 

Photo: Maja Milatovic-Ovadia

When I first heard that I should put together a theatre/art project on the theme of climate change I was a bit sceptical. Is this the subject we should tackle in a society that is still recovering from the atrocities of civil war? How do we talk about climate issues in a country that has still not reconciled? With young people that have to deal with numerous difficulties such as extreme unemployment (according to World Bank data, youth unemployment in Bosnia is 4th highest in the world, at 63%), a highly corrupt society, and a bleak economic future? In a country where industry is almost non-existent and people are leaving in the vast numbers? How do we talk about climate issues with young people aged 16 to 21 who have never even travelled by aeroplane?

We’ll talk about it, I though, as we always do. First, by placing the word in the middle of the page and scribbling our ideas, impressions, associations, stories, thoughts and laughter around it. This is the way we always create theatre pieces, using a collaborative way of theatre making, combining it with a devised theatre approach, and always foregrounding the importance of comedy as a genre through which to seriously explore the complexity of human existence. Only this time, instead of a theatre performance, we will create four video pieces and a series of photographs. Our process will be as follows: sharing thoughts; gathering material through theatre improvisations; selecting the material we think will be interesting and developing it further; finalising ideas, filming, photographing and editing. 

Brainstorming. Photo: Maja Milatovic-Ovadia

Improvisation. Photo: Maja Milatovic-Ovadia

Let’s play!

The first words that emerged on our white paper placed in the middle of the room were: polluted air, dirty water, contaminated soil, illegal wood cutting, floods, burning rubbish in the fields, use of anti-hail rockets, illegal rubbish dumps, Omarska and Ljubija mines, the river Sana, the fish basin Saničani, fog, and plastic bags everywhere. 

Then we posed a question: Why? Why do we think these things are happening? Thoughts piled up:  poverty, apathy and disinterest, selfishness, consumerism, deserted businesses, greed, lack of knowledge, corruption at state level, profit above everything, waiting for someone else to act and sort things out.

We identified a few themes as important for the group to share: the story of the contaminated land, the abandoned fish-farm that contributes to health and breathing problems, frequent floods, and the complex issue of the iron ore mine, Omarska. Four video works started to emerge. 

The thought that the ‘seed is stronger than concrete’ prompted us to also develop two series of photographs. For the first, we would find deserted sites that were once used and represented prosperity, but were now decaying, and stage everyday scenarios in them. We chose a crumbling paper factory, Celpak, once an economic giant of Yugoslavia, to stage a birthday party; a deserted swimming complex to stage washing up; and a big dumping site for household goods for a coffee chat between friends and evening book read. The second series of photographs captured houses wrecked by war that are now overgrown by vegetation. 

From the ‘Birthday Party’ photo series. Photo: Maja Milatovic-Ovadia

From the ‘Coffee Chat and Evening Read’ photo series. Photo: Maja Milatovic-Ovadia

Video work

Cvjetna nedjelja

The story of contaminated land was told through the local (probably pagan, now Christian, also practiced by Muslims) ritual associated with beauty, well-being and health. On the Eve of Flowers (Cveti), girls and children go to the fields and pick flowers. They pick large margaritas, to be beautiful; cornelian cherry, to be strong; violet, to be fragrant and attractive; and willow twigs, for all to be prosperous. These flowers are not brought into the house but left overnight in the yard, in a bowl of clear water. In the morning, the family washes their faces with that water in order to be prosperous, healthy and beautiful. In the video created, this colourful ritual slowly transforms into the grim picture where a young girl is washing her face with plastic flowers, soaked in the dark, muddy liquid that was once clean water. 

Performance and filming of Cvjetna nedjelja. Photo: Maja Milatovic-Ovadia

Fog

Saničani fish farm was built in 1905 and was the biggest fish farm in former Yugoslavia. Up to 1500 tons of fish were caught annually from the 36 fish-farm lakes. Until its privatisation in 2001 the fish farm successfully operated as a state-owned enterprise. Today it is abandoned and presents an ecological catastrophe for the local residents: the danger of floods due to lack of care for drainage channels, and lack of care for the fish. In addition, the 36 lakes generate thick fog. The numbers of asthma sufferers in Prijedor is higher than the national average, partly due to the increased humidity in the area (five percent of the total population suffer from asthma, more than half of whom are children under the age of 17). In the video, the beautiful images of the lakes and fog are juxtaposed with the heavy breathing of one of the participants who suffers from asthma.

At the abandoned fish farm. Photo: Maja Milatovic-Ovadia

Floods

In 2014 the region suffered the heaviest rains recorded in 120 years. 30 people died, and the damage was vast. People on the ground responded with admirable empathy, helpfulness and self-organising. International donations, aid funds and loans were provided to repair the damage. In 2019 the floods returned, and sparked a series of arguments between state officials, citizens and organisations about the lack of secured embankments, the repair of landslides and cleaning riverbeds, as well as about how the money from donations was spent.

To talk about this issue we decided to use satire, through theatre improvisations of the characters of a local business women looking for donations;  a diaspora youth who had a plan to re-build the country’s economy by opening up a surfing school; a new age guru connecting with water;  a fisherman who fishes for trainers; and a know-it-all citizen who is observing everything from dry land. In the short video they are strolling up and down the Sana river while being interviewed by a TV presenter.  

At the river Sana. Photo: Maja Milatovic-Ovadia

Setting up for the performance and filming at the river Sana. Photo: Maja Milatovic-Ovadia

Omarska mine

When considering the Omarska mine narrative, we were very conscious of the complexity of the issue. Firstly, we talked about the dual nature of mining – the damage the industry is creating to the environment, and at the same time, the necessity of using iron to build bridges, cars, trains, needles, screws and bolts. We then focused on the case of the Omarska mine in particular.

In the Prijedor region, the mining industry is an integral part of history and life. Mining was (and is) the main economic force on which most of the local community depends for its livelihood. Iron ore has been excavated since ancient times, and excavated traces of ancient mining date back to the Phoenician period. The Celts dug in the 4th century BC, followed by the Illyrians. Subsequently, for over 400 years, the Roman Empire melted iron ore and built roads and military stations. After the Romans, Goths extracted iron from the land, then the Avars, Slavs and Saxons, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In 1992, because of the war, the production was brought to a halt. 

During the war, mines in the area (including Omarska and Tomašica) were transformed into concentration camps and places of mass killing and torture.

In 2004 the mining complex was privatised and sold to ArcelorMittal, ‘the world’s leading steel and mining company […] which mainly supplies ArcelorMittal’s European subsidiaries’. The name ArcelorMittal is also well known in the UK as a founder of the Orbit, the ‘extraordinary looping structure’ and art symbol of the 2012 Olympic Games, partially built with the iron from Omarska. And so economic interdependencies take us on a journey from Prijedor to London.

Omarska mine. Photo: Maja Milatovic-Ovadia

ArcelorMittal’s work in Bosnia has been accompanied by several disputes, including over the memorialisation of Omarska camp – ArcelorMittal is refusing to allow the construction of a memorial centre so as to not contravene the official narrative of events supplied by the local authorities — over the unsafe air pollution in Zenica, and over financial crime.

On the last piece of paper we wrote ‘Now what?’ 

‘We need to change our perception of the world and re-examine our importance in it’;

‘We can’t stop producing steel, but we could consider how (and how much)’;

‘We need to find a way to act’;

‘We can act on a personal level’;

‘We need to continually talk about it’;

We must work with movements attacking the centre of power and changing the way of thinking.’ 

These were some of the thoughts offered by the group.

Everything is interlinked – through nature as well as economy. 

We should re-consider how we understand ‘us  and them’ and how we value unifying action. We should probably get away from usual ways of thinking about nations and states and think about universal solutions, as human beings who live on this planet together. If you dump nuclear rubbish on one side of the border it will be absorbed by soil, water, and air, and travel around totally ignoring border crossings imposed by human beings or silly little notions of passports. Polluted air will not transform into fresh air when entering the nostrils of a human being of a particular nationality. 

We should re-value our wishes and desires. The central question is: how did we get to a situation where we value profit or comfort over human life? Are we aware this happening or has it just crept into our everyday existence? What can we do to change it? 

– at the end, the ‘seed is stronger than concrete’ and ‘we are not saving the planet but our existence on it’, as one of the students explained it. 

Maja Milatovic-Ovadia

Agnes CzajkaComment