Last year a group of enthusiastic individuals decided to investigate a “crime scene” whose body of evidence continuously slips away through society’s fingers. Hidden away from daily torments of mass consumerism and commercial and socio-political trash culture attack, the idea of Belgrade’s underground resistance sparked off into a documentary, covering only partially some of the scene’s true alternative fragments which suffer great deal for keeping away from the daylight – but just as deservedly gaining much public spotlight. According to one of the film’s participants, Mileta Mijatović of the superb guerilla-force loose collective “Klopka za pionira” (meaning “Trap for the pioneer”), there is no “undeground” as such – there is “a hole under the basement”.
Thought-provoking and constructively demistifying, this scene is focused on various media but even more so – on comics culture. Pančevo, the Belgrade’s nearby epicentre of underground’s artistic fancy, provides the ideal space for gathering local and international individuals to contribute creatively.
“(On the Quest For) Beograd Underground” is the actual name of this currenly released documentary, now widely presented through Europe, along with the music project Alone by Nikola Vitković and an exhibition called “Distorted Mirror”, supervised by Vladimir Palibrk. Its intention is not to patronise or solve any mysteries but maintain the basic interest and most of all, point out the legacy and importance of one such cultural institution. With Muriel Buzarra and Carlos Lopez also in mind, Nataša Šarkić provides the main pleasant tone for this interview, with tiny contribution from one of their mutual colleagues, Tobias Strahl. Here is how they saw it, experienced it – and delivered it.
SD: What is the link between your personal choice of profession, and passion for exploring the underground scene’s unknown? Nataša, you’re an archeologist. How close is discovering and exploring historical remains with discovering and exploring the modern society? NŠ: Actually, it is very close. In both cases you are “digging out” something that is hidden and you can’t be sure what you will discover. It takes a lot of time, but the moment you discover the treasure is really priceless.
SD: How did you all meet and greet the idea of making a documentary together? Who else was involved in the very project – in terms of assistance? NŠ: It was really like we said in the beginning of the documentary – Muriel Buzarra (the director) and I met by pure chance in Belgrade, and we were just hanging around for two weeks, all the time going on concerts and alternative places, and I introduced him to my friends. And he was recording all the time, everywhere we went to. But at that moment, there was no idea of making anything concrete of it. Later on, he gave me a call, saying – I watched the material, and some of it is really cool. How about making documentary of Belgrade underground scene? And I was like – yeah, cool, let’s do it! So in January he came along with his friend, Carlos Lopez (second camera , director assistant) and we started shooting. But for me if it wasn’t like that, so spontaneous and maybe even frivolous, I wouldn’t do it at all. Because, only later I faced severity of my task – I had to choose people and places and topics and in a way that was supposed to represent Serbia. I was terrified, but it was too late to give up… : ) Once when we decided to do a documentary, we wanted to do it in very serious way, BBC wanna-be style, but soon we realised that wouldn’t work for us and for the topic that we are dealing with. You can’t be objective when you are making a movie about underground art scene, because for most of the people that’s not art at all. For them, art is in museums and galleries. So even choosing that topic means, we are not objective at all. And I don’t want to pretend to be that cold, objective observer – I knew from earlier on, most people showing up in the documentary, some of them are even close friends of mine, and I love the stuff they do, so there’s nothing objective about it. So we tried to keep that spontaneous manner in the whole movie and to show how it really was, and how our digging was going deeper. At one point we even switched to Pančevo, but that was the part of the result of our “quest for Beograd underground” Someone else, doing the same, could come up with completely different result – this is just one point of view.
SD: Tobias, before you and Nataša met, were you familiar with the underground scene in the Balkans, both past and present? Can you name a few of your personal favourites, either in terms of comics, music or otherwise? TS: Actually, I wasn’t; I didn’t even know that such a thing was existing at all, although it is pretty logic that it must; let’s say, I was not aware of the phenomenon. An active underground scene is usually not the first association if it comes to the Balkans in the so called “west”. I knew Nikola Urošević from “Kinovia” but for other reasons – beside that, I don’t know if Kinovia is talked about as underground at the Balkans. My contacts to the Balkans were – and are – more to other branches of the cultural life; first an foremost cinema; Rajko Petrović from Slobodna Zona filmski festival is a good friend of mine as Veton Nurkollari from Dokufest in Prizren, Kosovo, too. I appreciate the work of the Cultural Center Rex in Beograd. But the project “Beograd Underground” really fascinated me. I want to discover this part of the Balkans since I usually spend at least half of the year in the region. Especially I am interested in the Nacionalna Asocijacija Za Umetnost i Kulturu (The National Association of Arts and Culture), the NAUK-project in Serbia.
SD: Comparing Serbian / Belgrade underground culture to the one that exists in Spain, what would be your impressions so far? To you, what are the similarities and what are the differences between the two?
NŠ: For the scene, it is very important to have a place for gathering. Musicians need a place to play, painters and comic drawers need a place to exhibit their artwork and so on, but what is most important – people need a place to hang out. Because that is the only way to create a scene – if you have a lot of young, enthusiastic people, gathering around the same idea, that spontaneously decide to make a band, installation, performance… In the mainstream art, if you wanna paint you have to finish the academy, they teach you how to do it, they give you a diploma and voila! you can be a painter now! In underground it’s all about your impulse and your need for creating. That’s why it is so important to have a place with that kind of spirit, that will liberate you and stimulate you to create. In Spain, in any bigger city, there are many squats and alternative cultural centers that exist for very long time. In Serbia there’s always a problem with space. It is always something private that you have to pay for. But if you are making non-commercial art, where will you get the money to pay for the space and the bills? But, on the other hand, I think that DIY principle is much stronger in Serbia, precisely because you know that no one will help, so you don’t count on that. I moved to Spain in the beginning of 2009, just when the crisis started, and I had the sensation that everything was frozen. Suddenly, there was no donations and help for the projects, so people didn’t know what to do. They were so used to have that external support, or to make things with solid budget, that they were just doing nothing, except waiting for the crisis to finish. But now it seems to me that they got used a bit on the situation, once that they realize that crisis will not end up soon, so they learned “how to create with small budget or no budget”.
SD: In the self-financed documentary about the comics/music underground scene of Belgrade and Pančevo, called “(On the Quest for) Beograd Underground”, a number of participants and/or observers from abroad are also being introduced in the film. In your opinion, how did the European audiences react to this project and how aware are they of the actual underground scene in Serbia? On the other hand, how do domestic people accept and react to this underground movement? NŠ: Most foreigners that are part of the movie are part of the scene as well, and they know perfectly what is going on. But for the rest of the European audiences, we met people with very different levels of knowledge – from those who can’t even find Serbia on the map, to those who are really interested in it. But what I was really glad about was that many people got interested in the topic after watching the movie, they asked lots of questions about the scene there and the situation in general, and we even got a couple of e-mails from people who decided to come to Serbia, only after watching the documentary. And that is something that I’m really happy about. I’m glad to show that there is more then wars and Kusturica. Off course, it was easier part, because for most of them it was interesting to see at least something that is coming from such a strange place as Serbia. But domestic public is harder to please. There is always a lot of ego in it and everyone has their own vision of who should and who shouldn’t be in the movie. I think that everyone’s free to make another movie with whomever they want. This is not our final conclusion or only one perspective.
SD: Do you believe there is an actual “scene” or is it the fragments – how fruitful do you find these actions are on social terms – regarding change, reason, initiative, creativity, the sense and acceptance of multicultural and national values…? NŠ: The moment when we started shooting, I believed there was a scene and that it was strong and important, but I guess, I was just overenthusiastic. In the last few years, everytime I attended some concert I saw the same faces, but everytime less and less. Some of them found jobs, others got kids, it’s all normal, but there is no young people that will bring fresh blood and revive the scene. But all of this is changing very fast, in both positive and negative way. You just need one new place or few new bends with good energy and immediately the flames will flare up. Or maybe again, I’m overenthusiastic. : ) So – are these actions fruitful and do they have some real echo in the society? No, they are not. Do I think it can get better? Yes, I do.
And about multiculti… there is no such thing in Serbia. We are all from the same tribe. We can even except some rare foreigners who stray and decide to stay, but only when they undergo the initiation. Most of the people from Serbia don’t travel, foreigners are very rare, Serbians who immigrate usually do not come back, so there is no cultural flow. And that is perfect ground for nationalism. It is easy to think that your country is the best and the most beautiful one if you haven’t seen anything else.
SD: What was the experience of making the interviews? Which participant in the film do you find most interesting and which one do you find most eccentric? NŠ: For me that was priceless experience. I learned so much from it – how to ask the questions, how to get what’s really important and how to adapt the form to sensibility of the one that I was talking to. But I learned much more from the content of the answers. Even with the people that I know for a long time, we never touched those topics before. But then again, you have that moment in the presence of the camera, that completely blocked some people, while the others got more stimulated, so I got surprised in many situations when people who are normally very loud and extrovert became shy, once you pointed the camera to them and vice-versa. My favorite interview in the movie is the one with Nikola Vitković, and it had a strong impact on me. After that I reconsider my relation to Serbia, and it motivates me to act, to do things here and now. But I have to mention the interview with Wostok too, that was also very encouraging and motivating. The way he is doing things, his persistence and stubbornness (in the most positive sense) should be a positive example for all of us. The most eccentric was the one with Johnny Račković. He simply didn’t want to answer to any of my questions and he was just talking about things he found important, so after a while I gave up trying to take over the control of interview, I just let him do whatever he wanted, and later we cut the parts that we found relative for the topic. But it was very funny, though. We stayed there for hours and we got so much material that we could make a new documentary only about Johnny : ) And the strangest experience was with Zastranienie. I’ve never heard of them before, but when I asked Nikola Vitković for his opinion, which bands should be in the movie, he told me that I had to talk to Zastranienie, they are so great and productive. So I wrote them an e-mail, but they responded only when we already got back to Spain. So, I told them that I’m really sorry, that we have already finished with shooting and they offered to record something themselves and send us the material. I had to admit that I was very sceptical about it, especially about the quality of the image, but then we got this fantastic short movie whose quality was even better then our movie. Unfortunately, it was a bit hermetic, so finally we used just a little part of it, but it is a great representation of the band and the ideas they support.
SD: The European tour that you guys undertook in recent months seemed quite demanding, in terms of travel, booking and accomodation. What are your personal impressions and experiences during the tour? NŠ: Like Nikola said – “The strangest thing on the tour was that nothing bad happened.” I was really prepared that so many things might go wrong, but then everything was fine. Even when Muriel lost his bag with a wallet, mobile and passport, the police found it and gave it back to him. Incredible. And on this kind of tour, when there is no booking agency and nobody standing behind you, unpleasant surprises are very usual, like – sorry, guys, but we didn’t earn enough so we can’t pay you. Opposite things happened to us – we got payed more that we asked. I think that people liked the whole idea about DIY organisation so much that they were really happy to help us with tour.
SD: With this documentary, did you also apply for bigger festivals? Did you get any response in that matter? NŠ: The problem with big festivals is that they usually ask for HD format. But the movie was projected already on few festivals like DORF, Beldoks, Sombor Film Festival, Underhill and Grossmann. And next year, it’s gonna be on Primed in Marseille.
SD: Do you consider going for another tour in the near future? NŠ: Oh, I wish my life was a tour. We didn’t even finish the last one when I already started thinking about the new one, but in reality, it’s a bit difficult, because we are living in different parts of Europe (even the three of us – Carlos, Muriel and myself, are living in three different cities) and every one of us has their obligations, so it’s hard to match all that. But I hope we will do it again soon.
SD: Will there be a sequel to “Beograd Underground”? NŠ: I hear that question very often. Or suggestions like – “next time you have to record that guy or that band”, but I don’t see the need for that. Sure, it’s good to have lot of stuff documented, but then value of it is only a historical one. I think that this movie is transmitting one universal message and that is the true value of it. Maybe with some more people it would be even better, but in general I think that the message is clear, so there’s no need for repeating it.
“(On the Quest For) Beograd Underground” is produced and self-released by Muriel Buzarra, Nataša Šarkić and Carlos Lopez.
Images: group image by Tobias Strahl, from left to right: Carlos Lopez, Nataša Šarkić, Muriel Buzarra, Nikola Vitković and Vladimir Palibrk; “Wostok 666” borrowed from online featured article by Pionirov glasnik, pionirovglasnik.com; title page from 110th edition of “Krpelj” (The Tick) – the episode titled “Mućak” (Rotten Egg), by Lola & Wostok, image borrowed from komikaze.hr; Zastranienie photographed by Martina Mihaljević; Image still of Johnny Račković – Silver Surfer, borrowed from borderdisordernetworkofartists.blogspot.com
For details, including information on availability of the DVD or digital download of the film, please visit beogradunderground.com