Utopias of Democracy -– 6th Subversive Festival in Zagreb, Croatia

Sara Valenzuela Borken-Hage
6th Subversive Festival

This article originally appeared in Bturn magazine in a slightly modified version

From the 4th to the 18th of May Zagreb will be host to the 6th Subversive Festival. This year's guests include prominent individuals such as film director Oliver Stone, philosophers Slavoj Žižek and Tariq Ali, Bolivian Vice president Álvaro García Linera, and even Che Guevara's oldest daughter, Aleida Guevara, among many others. If you're anything like me – a film buff who loves the medium as much as the theory behind it – this festival offers both. Originally started in 2008 as purely a film festival, the organizers were always keen on creating a two dimensional event, one that focused not only on the material – the film – but also on the abstract – the theory. The festival was not just about the entertainment and novelty of bringing subversive documentaries and films from the region and abroad to Zagreb, it was an opportunity to link film and philosophy, an opportunity to“ take films as material for discussions; taking films that are subversive in their nature or that are dealing with subversive topics in different contexts” as Igor Štiks, one of the organisers, tells me during a short interview.

Since it started, the festival has introduced a wide array of cultural critics and philosophers such as Antonio Negri, Zygmunt Bauman, Saskia Sassen, Terry Eagleton, David Harvey, and others who continue to return to the festival (i.e Žižek and Ali); Festival themes have revolved around difficult issues such as the crisis of Europe, socialism and decolonization. Through the years, however, organizers realized that a film festival was not enough, that there needed to be another component which could take Subversive further, and give it a more tangible role as a space for debate. In 2011 they established the Subversive Forum to host intensive all-day long debates. And last year, the Balkan Forum was introduce to the Subversive program, “in order to really make an imprint on, or to influence what is happening with the movements that are growing across the Balkans, we decided to introduce, last year, the Balkan Forum, which is a real platform for more than 50 organisations, movements and political actors – progressive political actors – from across [the] post-socialist Balkans” says Štiks. Furthermore, Subversive hopes to help in the “depathologisation of the Balkans, and deprovincialisation of [the Balkans] but also of western progressive actors who are often stuck in their own prejudices.”  During this second forum, Subversive wants to discuss issues such as democratisation and participation, sex and gender equality, worker struggles, the media and the public sphere, and new economic models.

At a time when the crisis of the Euro and the doubts about the viability of the EU are deepening, South Eastern Europe continues to be centre of the crisis, the open wound; a visual reminder of the flawed dynamics that rule the collective psyches of Europe and those in control [of it]. In lieu of this, Subversive recognises the importance of this discussion and the creation of a common understanding amongst social movements at this particular moment in time. As directors of the Subversive Forum, Srećko Horvat and Igor Štiks state on a piece published on the festival's website:

The Subversive Forum will take place only a month and a half before Croatia’s official accession to the EU. It will therefore open a large debate on questions related to the EU’s functioning and future, on alternatives models including the Latin American experiments, and, moreover, on the future of the Balkans and the progressive forces fighting fragmentation, economic devastation, corrupted institutions of representative democracy and the new rise of nationalism and extremism. The coming EU accession of Croatia provides thus a significant context for a much-needed gathering of Balkan progressive forces and an urgent development of their cooperation as well as of a common vision of another Balkans built on true democratic foundations, social equality and international solidarity. It is also an opportunity for the insertion of these movements into the pan-European and global struggles.

During my talk with Igor Štiks the issue of The Commons continuously came up as the one 'galvanizer' topic around which movements struggle and gain momentum. The struggle for The Commons, that is, the struggle against the privatization of public parks, urban space or natural resources, or the privatization of public services such as education and health is a struggle taking place right here in the Balkans just as much as the rest of the world but the organisers of Subversive feel that these struggles are highly underreported, giving the impression of stagnancy and apathy in the region, “People are fighting against the building of golf courses in Dubrovnik, where they're basically trying to preserve what belongs to everyone...We saw huge protests in Bulgaria against the privatization of forests, even in Banja Luka against the destruction of parks, in Zagreb especially, but also in Belgrade, [protests] about public parks that are becoming parking lots [...]” Štiks comments. The Commons is where society draws the line, where they are willing to step up and say enough. And this is a fight taking place everywhere, in movements such as Occupy in the USA, or student mobilizations in Chile, or the ongoing fights of indigenous peoples of the Americas for the preservation and continuation of their territories. In 2012 Slovenians took to the streets in protest of austerity measures; the list goes on. But the point is that these things are also happening in the Balkans, and people should not diminish them or ignore them but instead recognise them as a sign of new possibilities for public dialogue and accountability.

Personally, I am excited about the Subversive Festival and what it has to offer. For me, this festival is part of what art is about, not just about art itself, but as a conduct for questions and debates. This Balkan Forum presents a chance to recognise that these struggles are not less important because we don't live under dictatorships and instead we live in a world of ‘democratically elected' governments, but because of the nature of power and capital, a nature we must understand and constantly scrutinise. Subversive Festival is a special event in its combination of theory, art and political debate on a public stage. (I wouldn't say the only one, because if you look hard enough, there are always smaller similar projects taking place everywhere!). Whether you like interesting thought-provoking films, or equally thought provoking debates, want to see Oliver Stone in the flesh, or listen to Slavoj Žižek give hour long answers to individual questions, it seems to me that Subversive Festival has something to offer.

For more information on the festival program go to: www.subversivefestival.com

Sara Valenzuela Borken-Hagen studied Film Studies and Urban Studies at the University of Pittsburgh in the USA. She's originally from Chile and is now living in Belgrade, working on two independent documentary film projects.