Logo of MESS Sarajevo (Medunarodni teatarski-festival MESS) at Bosnia and Herzegovina
Hope runs through Sarajevo's International Theater Festival MESS
Hope runs through Sarajevo‘s International Theater Festival MESS

Haris Pasovic‘s The Conquest of Happiness opened Sarajevo’s International Theater Festival MESS under the Old Bridge in the nearby city of Mostar. For the first time in its 53-year-old history, Festival MESS opened in a city other than Sarajevo.

Dino Mustafic, director of Festival MESS, describes this year’s Festival as conquest for happiness and hope.

“Almost two decades after the war and the horrible events in the Balkans, we believe that some of the plays the MESS will show, are asking (sometimes in a very radical way, very brave and courageous) the question about one person’s right to happiness,” Mustafic said in an interview for The Journal of Turkish Weekly.

Mustafic, one of the most important theater directors in the region, added that the theater in the Balkans is “struggling to survive.” “Despite that fact, we have very brave authors, very good actors and directors. Outside of that, there is some type of the general indifference toward the theater,” Mustafic said.

Over the last five years, Festival MESS’s budget was slashed by 73 percent. That’s the bad news. The good news is that because of Mustafic’s leadership, Festival MESS has continued to produce an international festival this year. Compare that situation to the terrible fact that the country’s major national institutions are either in danger or have closed.

All Bosnian cultural institutions have been trapped in political divisions. As a result, Bosnia’s oldest and most prestigious cultural institutions have begun closing their doors one after another, thanks to long-standing disputes among politicians from its three ethnic groups and dwindling state funding.

Earlier this year, Sarajevo marked the 125th anniversary of the National Museum of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Instead of celebrating, though, Bosnians people came to light 125 candles and lay the same number of roses at the museum’s front entrance. Why? The museum has been closed to the public since October 2012 due to lack of funding.

Six other major cultural institutions in Bosnia have been in danger: the National and University Library, the Art Gallery, Historical Museum, National Film Archive, Museum of Literature and Theatrical Arts, and the National Library for the Blind and Partially-Sighted. Without international attention, their collections and premises are at risk of deterioration, skilled staff are liable to leave or have left, and the threat of permanent closure looms over them.

Different reasons have been offered to explain the inadequate funding. The National Museum is the victim of the arrangements made under the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the Bosnian war in 1995. This agreement created generated multiple tiers of government – state, entity, cantonal and municipal – with the effect that none of the different levels of government consider themselves responsible for maintaining any of Bosnia’s cultural institutions.

Bosnia does not have a state-level ministry of culture. Bosnian Serbs oppose giving the central government control over the cultural sites, insisting that Bosnia is an artificial state and that each of the country’s ethnic groups has its own heritage. Bosniaks, meanwhile, argue that safeguarding the shared history of the Bosnian people is one way to keep the country unified instead of permanently splitting it the way many Bosnian Serbs would want.

Balkan cultural experts suspect that nationalist efforts have been undermining anything that embodies the idea of Bosnia as a state. “There can be no Bosnia and Hercegovina if there are no common institutions at the state level – at least the Bosnia and Hercegovina that I advocate for,” writer Ferida Durakovic wrote on Cultureshutdown.net, an online platform set up last year to raise awareness about the alarming state of Bosnia’s cultural institutions.

“In this horrible legal and political vacuum, everyone is snatching a bit for themselves, because in the eyes of their own ethnic group they will become greater and more important if they maim Bosnia and Hercegovina and steal from it that which should be the property of all of us,” Durakovic wrote.

Mustafic’s Festival MESS, which ends October 7, is hosting 25 plays from 18 countries. “When you ask me how do we manage to survive, it is because of our enthusiasm, passion and love for the theater and the Festival that was reborn after the war, in 1997, and rebuilt by the same group of people who are still working for the MESS,” Mustafic said. –rg

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