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FINDing gratitude: Sanja Mitrović

INTERVIEW! Danke Deutschland, a performance that examines the experience of Vietnamese immigrants in East and West Germany, is a hot-pick from this years FIND festival. We interviewed director Sanja Mitrović and delved deeper into its conception.

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Photo by Alexa Vachon

Sanja Mitrović is a rising star of the European stage. The Brussels-based Serbian has gained much-deserved international recognition for her unique brand of documentary theatre, which landed her a residency at the Centre Dramatique National in Orléans. She’s also no stranger to Berlin. Last month she generated major buzz at HAU with Comrades, I Am Not Afraid of My Communist Past. Already a guest at FIND in 2016, Mitrović now returns to the festival with her first in-house production: a performance that examines the experience of Vietnamese immigrants in East and West Germany with a cast mixing actors from the Schaubühne ensemble and non-professionals from the Vietnamese community.

Your piece is called Danke Deutschland. What are you thankful for?

The performance refers to the Vietnamese community’s gratefulness to the country that gave them an opportunity to build a new life. It’s actually about Germany’s two Vietnamese communities. One is the North Vietnamese who came here under the umbrella of the GDR’s guest worker programme. The other is the so-called “boat people” from South Vietnam who fled to West Germany in the 1970s. Both groups have quite a different experience of integration, but what binds them is that feeling of gratefulness.

So the title isn’t meant sarcastically?

There’s certainly a double entendre at play, because some of these people were maybe not that thankful. Many of them experienced a very difficult process of integration and they didn’t really speak about that, out of fear that they would be sent away or simply because they think their position in Germany would be jeopardised. They were silent but still thankful.

One of the most haunting images that comes to mind in connection with Vietnamese immigrants here is the one associated with the xenophobic riots against the Sunflower House in Rostock-Lichtenhagen in 1992. Do they ever talk about that?

They don’t want to talk about these things publicly. They want to focus on the future, not the past. And for many of them, the experience was just too traumatic. What’s hard is that the first generation doesn’t really speak about their experiences. Not among themselves and also not with their children. There is a generational silence that cannot be bridged. The piece does talk about that. And about this silence in the community, and how the two communities would never meet. For the second-generation Vietnamese-Germans it’s much easier to establish cross-community relationships because they didn’t live through the East-West division.

You grew up in the former Yugoslavia, a region fraught with its own conflicts and divisions. What moved you to look at Vietnam and Germany?

My own experience of immigration and the very strange feeling I had when my homeland fell apart. Suddenly, I went from being “Yugoslavian” to being “Serbian” – something I couldn’t identify with. Interestingly, Vietnam went in the opposite direction: they unified but couldn’t find a new identity. This problem of adjusting to new social and political systems is something that deeply interests me. I want to observe communities and individuals who are caught in a shifting sense of history through political and economic upheavals.

The American Dream is often framed as the opportunity to make a financial success of oneself. Is there a ‘German dream’?

After reunification, Germany was seen as pragmatic, as rational, as a model powerhouse which would ensure wider stability in Europe. On an individual level, the German dream might have been associated with an expectation that one could live a comfortable, middle-class life. But increasing instability in the global economy, this dream might be slipping away.

What about a Yugoslavian dream?

There is no Yugoslavian dream anymore. Of course, I chose this topic because of my own personal experience. I was living in the former Yugoslavia at a time when the country was disintegrating. For most of my life, I’ve been an immigrant – a dislocated person trying to adapt. I moved to the Netherlands, where I lived for 12 years and from there I moved to Belgium. Almost half of my life I’ve been in this position of dislocated and divided identity.

And are you yourself a thankful immigrant?

Well I can’t compare my situation to that of the Vietnamese. I wasn’t forced to leave Serbia. I came to Amsterdam to study. I’m grateful for the education I received, for being able to study theatre directing.

In your piece Comrades, I Am Not Ashamed of My Communist Past you mourn the loss of values such as solidarity and social justice after the breakup of your former homeland. Is this just Tito-nostalgia?

No. Of course not. I’m speaking about that period from the perspective of a child who grew up in a different country. These are memories of my youth. And you reflect on things differently as a kid. I don’t consider myself Yugo-nostalgic at all, and yet I do think that some of the values we shared in that period are lost. Just as I believe that some of the values that the GDR cherished were forgotten as well.

They say history is written by the winners.

Certainly. It’s a common strategy of revisionist narratives to sweep away whole swaths of achievements and life experiences which don’t fit the new ideology. So for example, the solidarity, workers’ rights, the striving for social equality and the belief in state-owned public services… They’re all blind spots which are carefully avoided and ignored.

Are concepts like social justice and solidarity ever compatible with autocratic systems though, even the socialist kinds?

But that’s one of the main differences: in a socialist system there was no contradiction in that sense. Private property was not a focus so there was no need for individual competition, like now. When you need to compete to accumulate private possessions, solidarity goes out the window. People refer to the GDR as a Stasi-controlled state – and sure, it was! But you can also ask yourself, what is this system in which we are living today? From the moment we wake up, open our computer, go on Facebook, order an Uber, an infinitely deep and more elaborate kind of control extends to every corner of our lives. And we accept it without questioning it.

Danke Deutschland, Schaubühne, April 4-6.

Sanja Mitrović was born in Zrenjanin in the Serbian part of former Yugoslavia. In 2001, she emigrated to the Netherlands to study theatre and founded Stand Up Tall Productions in 2009. Her multimedia documentary pieces focus on political phenomena ranging from the 1968 movement to the Wende. She currently lives in Brussels and is Artist in Residence at France’s CDNO.