Utopias of Democracy – 6th Subversive Festival in Croatia

From May 4-18, the 6th annual Subversive Festival in Zagreb will feature high-profile guests 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


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 a film festival only, the organizers were always keen on creating a two-fold event, one that focused not only on the concrete – 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. As Igor Stiks, one of the organizers, tells me during a short interview, it was an opportunity to link film and philosophy and 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”.

Since its inception, the festival has seen a wide array of cultural critics and philosophers such as Antonio Negri, Zygmunt Bauman, Saskia Sassen, Terry Eagleton, David Harvey, and others who keep coming back (i.e Zizek and Ali). Festival themes so far have touched on 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, beyond mere theoretical discussions of visual representations, 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 a mark or to influence what is happening with the movements that are growing across the Balkans, we decided last year to introduce the Balkan Forum, which is a real platform for more than 50 organizations, movements and political actors – progressive political actors – from across the post-socialist Balkans” says Stiks.

Furthermore, he tells me that they hope to help in the “depathologization and deprovincialization 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 democratization 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 viability of the EU are only deepening, south-eastern Europe continues to be one of the centres of crisis, an open wound, a visual reminder of the fluid dynamics that rule the collective psyches of Europe and those who are in control of it. In leau of this, the Balkan Forum recognizes the importance of this discussion and the creation of a common understanding amongst social movements in this particular moment in time:

“The Balkan Forum will take place only month and a half before Croatia’s official accession to the EU. It will therefore open a large debate on the questions related to EU’s functioning and future and moreover, on the future of the Balkans and the groups fighting fragmentation, economic devastation, corrupted institutions of representative democracy and the new rise of nationalism and extremism. The Subversive Forum will again through the Balkan Forum open a space for these movements to discuss their common strategy of resistance, joint actions and viable alternatives to the current social, political and economic models.”

During my talk with Igor Stiks one issue continuously came up as the one ‘galvanizer’ topics around which movements struggle and gain momentum – “The Commons” issue. 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. As Stiks comments, “people are fighting against the building of golf course’s 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 about public parks that are becoming parking lots.”

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 recognize them as a sign of new possibilities for public dialogue and accountability.

Personally, I am excited about Subversive Festival and what it has to offer. For me, it’s what art is about, not just about art itself, but as a conduct for questions and debates. Subversive is one of those special events merging theory, art and political dialogue. Whether you like thought provoking films or equally stimulating debates, or you want to see Oliver Stone in the flesh, or listen to Slavoj Žižek rambling for hours to answer individual questions, the Subversive Festival has a lot to offer.

Most debates will be conducted in English. For more information on the festival program go to subversivefestival.com

Sara Valenzuela Borken-Hagen studied Film Studies and Urban Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, USA. She’s originally from Chile and is now living in Belgrade, working on two independent documentary film projects. She’s interested in ideas of identity and memory building in urban landscapes through music, photography and film.