“I like my cities with edge,” I once heard a local say – and I concur. However, compared to those thriving cities I’ve passed through where immigrants form an important part of the local economy, Belgrade is still trailing behind as a developing city. At the same time, its dynamic people and background make me want to call this city my home. So, will my effort to join local communities pay off? Will I be a welcome addition to the city that brings jobs, development, and culture? Can I help to revive this historic city? I asked fellow Belgrade immigrant and cultural producer, Jean-Baptiste Demarigny.

Constance A. Dunn asks:
Can foreigners revive a city?

Jean-Baptiste Demarigny answers:

The answer should be yes, but we need to understand how this works. If we take a city that has suffered as an example, then a foreigner arrives with a different perspective and a different history. That means he or she has a sharper eye – or can query what someone wouldn’t question if he or she was born in that city.

View on the roof tops of Dorcol, the oldest district of Belgrade

The problem with crisis, social depression, or melancholy – as found in Belgrade – is that people get used to it and forget that the world could be different; when they forget that life has more to offer, they just start to accept the status quo. When you come from abroad and decide to live in a city, you have the advantage and asset of not yet being ‘corroded’ by the traumatic situations locals have endured for the past five, ten, or fifteen years. On the other hand, it is really important to be part of the city and not just come in from abroad with some great ideas, thinking that you can save the people. As a foreigner, you need to understand the issues specific to local society. Where do they come from? It will take a lot of time for you to see these issues clearly.

Belgrade ruin
“Spanish house”, one of the oldest buildings in Belgrade, waiting for reconstruction

A foreigner may arrive from a society that permits more creativity, but he or she has to understand that other societies might not promote creativity through education. This is one example of why it is so important to really live in a city and immerse yourself in everyday life before making any attempts to change it: It’s a basic rule of interaction and requires a pragmatic analysis of the situation before you can move things, to know where to push.

Street view
Despota Stefana, one of the main streets downtown

My second point concerns participation. No foreigner can revive a city by him- or herself, i. e. you have to rely on the locals’ involvement. As I am not from this city, no one would even consider me a serious driver for change. Any change introduced by me would not last very long because it takes a fertile ground and foundation to grow and proliferate. “Yeah, yeah … he’s French, so that why he does that and reacts like that. This is just some French theater,” would be a typical reaction.

Rainbow Belgrade
Rainbow in Nusiceva street in the city center

Our first project was to create a school, not making a play for exactly this reason, to create a foundation. Beyond providing people with skills, we wanted to help young people to explore and develop their own creativity. The two things young people in Serbia lack are creativity and confidence in their own strengths. If you want something – and work for it – hard enough, you can actually achieve something. And you can do better than you ever thought you could. The second step involved opening a theater. I am the director, but because I am foreign, I am always hiding from newspapers, advertising, or public interest because a society that has been threatened by a foreign country will treat you differently if you are not a local. So, I am somehow pretending that I don’t exist, that those plays are made by Serbian people.

By the lake
Boats on Sava river

Speaking from personal experience, I found Marrakech a very happy society although people are a lot poorer than the ones I work with in Serbia. After their constant smiles, it was difficult arriving to the depressed faces of Belgrade. In Marrakech, where I also ran a theater, it was more about developing culture, but in Belgrade the work is more political. There are some issues related to the recent wars that need to be raised to ensure that all of this won’t happen again. Marrakech is a society with no structure, a chaotic society, where cultural work is like drawing on sand, constantly wiped away by the waves, but Belgrade has some strong institutions. So, when you create something, it can have a lasting effect. This is a big issue for theater because the art form itself is ephemeral by nature and a local ensemble carries great responsibility. In Belgrade, however, I can see that my contribution benefits people and works as a long-term investment.

Modern Belgrade
Inner yard in the center of Belgrade

So, yes – I think that we can revive a society that has lost its confidence. We can do it because we enter the scene with energy and enthusiasm; with the idea that we can change the world if we truly believe it.

All pictures, incl. the header image: Sanja Karic