Theatre maker Tea Tupajić on Yezidi women, ( in)humanity and the horror of war

‘We are not just victims, we are mostly survivors – and that should be celebrated’

© Sima Dehgani

 

‘I did not want to remain silent when I can talk, when I can do something with the horror that happens to people in war.’ That is why Bosnian-Croatian theatre maker Tea Tupajić invited a number of Yezidi women who were used by IS as sex slaves to tell their story in detail for one last time. They do so in Licht, which was also presented on 21 April at Brussels’ KVS.

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The episodic play ‘Licht’ (Light) begins at the rise of Islamic State (IS, also known as Daesh) and goes up to the moment the Yezidi women free themselves from the grip of IS. The first three episodes will take place in Munich, and the fourth episode was presented in Brussels on Friday 21 April.

The ninth and final part will take the women to Switzerland, where the United Nations headquarters is located. ‘There we hope to reach the audience linked to the UN,’ says theatre-maker Tea Tupajić. ‘I wanted to put the issue on the agenda of how women are used as weapons in war.’

War is no stranger to theatre-maker Tea Tupajić. Born in 1984 in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, she was seven when war broke out in ex-Yugoslavia and reached her town. She fled with her parents to Croatia. In Zagreb, she studied drama. She currently lives in the Netherlands.

Theatre as a quest

Tea Tupajić makes engaged art. She works on long-term projects in which she searches for answers to very complex, painful or controversial issues. In The Curators’ Piece (A Trial Against Art), a 2011 play that brought her international fame, she questioned curators about their artistic approach and the social role art can play.

But it is the theme of war that concerns her most. There is little room for fiction in her work, and she deliberately chooses non-professional performers. Her performances are like documentaries, the result of the quest she undertakes with the performers.

Sometimes Tupajić literally finds herself in the story herself, as in the film Darkness There and Nothing More (2021). In it, she talks to two veterans of Dutchbat, the Dutch peacekeeping mission in Srebrenica, where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered after that battalion’s withdrawal.

In The Disco — a 2015 performance — she scrutinised the interrogation techniques of security and intelligence agencies. “What intelligence agencies do is also a way of waging war,” she says. In Licht, she calls on Yezidi women to talk about an age-old practice in war: rape.

‘Whether in Srebrenica, in Rwanda or among the Yezidis: genocide always happens in the same way,’ Tupajić says. ‘It happens by locking up men because they are supposedly armed, when that is not the case at all, and then killing them. But there is also the other part of the story, which is often less discussed. That is the fate of the women and the horror of the sexual crimes committed on them. And that is what Licht is about.’

Survivors, not victims

Rape was always a way to wage war, you say. Why did you choose to work with Yezidi women around this theme?

Tea Tupajić: What makes the Yezidi women interesting is that they come from a very patriarchal society but have become the voice of their community. They have overcome the shame and guilt associated with rape, especially in a conservative society like theirs. They reverse the stereotype.

They are survivors, and that is the most important thing in the story. Hence the show is called Licht and not, say, Horror or Darkness.

What message do you want to convey with this performance?

Tea Tupajić: There are two distinguished messages we want to convey with this performance. First of all, we want to tell the whole story of what happened to these concrete women. It’s not a film, it’s not a book either. It is theatre. These are real women, telling their stories in detail. So, the first objective is to let them experience the story.

The second objective, which is very important to me as a woman coming from a war zone myself, is to show the courage and bravery of these women. Not only have they managed to survive, but they are brave enough to share with others the most heinous crimes that can happen to a human being. They do so not to say, ‘Look how sad our fate was.’ They do so because they want to help ensure it doesn’t happen again.

You planned to stop working around war. So, what won you over anyway?

Tea Tupajić: Before I made Licht, I had promised myself that I would not work around war or genocide again. Because just before Licht, I had made a film, Darkness There and Nothing More, in which I talk to two soldiers from Dutchbat. The film revolves around the genocide in Srebrenica. Dutchbat, the Dutch peacekeeping mission that was there to protect the people, withdrew and thousands of Muslim men and youths were killed. After this film, I wanted to take a break.

But when I first met the Yezidi women, they said, ‘Oh, you are also a survivor of war!’ I found this statement very powerful. Then I thought: if we all see ourselves as survivors, and not victims, then that is something that can be celebrated. It would be great to share this with others so that people can learn from it.

That is one thing. Besides, I also remembered that when we were at war, I always thought there were people who knew what was happening to us, but they didn’t do anything with it. They looked the other way. Therefore, I myself do not want to remain silent when I can talk, when I can get a story out of what happened to these people and convey that story.

©Luka Matic/Münchner Wunderkammer

Bosnian-Croatian theatre maker Tea Tupajić: ‘I think a story has to be told in detail, from the beginning to the end. Only then is the victim, or the person telling their story, not just someone you don’t know.’

Human or inferior?

In the film Darkness, you were involved yourself in the war it is about. Did your conversation with the Dutch soldiers lead anywhere?

Tea Tupajić: (grins) It did not lead to reconciliation. The performance does not revolve around guilt or innocence, but mainly shows the relationship with the local people.

The question that constantly recurs in the film is: Why are some lives worth more than others? Why did the European Commission and others decide at one point to withdraw Dutchbat and let people die?

‘In a genocide, there is always that question of how you look at people. Do you see them as people or do you see them as something inferior?’

The film also deals with Dutchbat’s problematic stance towards Bosnian women. This is prompted by the graffiti left by Dutch soldiers in their barracks: ‘No teeth? A mustache? Smel [sic] like shit? Bosnian girl’.

One of the Dutch soldiers said he was not interested in what would happen to the people. That he wanted to go home and have a beer, that he wanted to go to bed. ‘I’m not a hero,’ he said. It debunks the Hollywood version of war, where the rescuer really wants to save people and where people are good and sweet but can’t do anything. It shows the weaker side of humanity.

In a genocide, there is always that question of how you look at people. Do you see them as human beings or do you see them as something inferior? It is also interesting for me to see how the public reacts. The Dutch public and journalists saw soldiers who could do nothing. They were unarmed and had to obey. They are innocent. But other people like a colleague of mine — a woman from Yemen — saw something completely different. She saw a lack of values and a lack of empathy.

In 2015, you also made a performance with former employees of Israeli intelligence and secret services. Why did you do that?

Tea Tupajić: What intelligence agencies do is also a way of waging war. That performance showed how a person’s personality can become a war machine. Intelligence services do not use weapons. They use different tactics. They use diplomacy. They get to know people and do war in this way.

We showed the performance in Israel and in Europe. The responses showed that very few people are aware of what the everyday life of an intelligence official is like and how precise they are in their dealings with people. But also, how these officials are masters of human communication. In a way, the audience was baffled by how such human skills can be used in warfare.

© Sima Dehgani

‘What connects me to the Yezidi women is that we understand each other. When you experience such tragedies, it is as if you have passed a certain boundary of horror and pain.’

Someone who can understand you

The topic of war is heavy and complex. You yourself experienced war as a child and this has repercussions on your work. But you say that the audience is also very important, and that there is a difference between people who have experienced war and people who only know about war through the news.

Tea Tupajić: One of the things that is important to me is figuring out how best to talk about that kind of stuff.

‘This is classic at the beginning of any war or occupation — you try to keep your old life as it was. But you can’t, because your life falls apart, because a nightmare begins.’

In Licht, it’s interesting to see how people who have experienced the horror of war experience the story and compare that to people who haven’t. In one scene in the show, one of the women tells how her mother sent her away to get some yoghurt at the time IS had invaded.

This is classic at the beginning of any war or occupation — you try to keep your old life as it was. But you can’t, because your life falls apart, because a nightmare begins.

My own mother thought the scene with the yoghurt was the most tragic. But for people who have never experienced anything like war, it is absurd. They don’t understand why yoghurt is mentioned when they have come to hear a story of rape and torture.

That is why the performance lasts more than three hours. Because not every story can just be delivered bite-sized. I think a story has to be told in detail, from the beginning to the end. Only then is the victim, or the person telling their story, not just someone you don’t know, but someone you can feel and understand.

What connects me with the Yezidi women is the fact that we understand each other, I think. When we were working on the show, one of the women told me: ‘You know, when I was there (with IS, ed.), I was praying every night.’ Then I responded, ‘Yes, you were praying to die,’ which she confirmed. Others would say she prayed to survive. When you experience such tragedies, it is as if you have passed a certain limit of horror and pain, and that is why we understand each other.

But with theatre, there is always the question of who comes to see it and what they expect from it. I would like the audience coming to this performance to be able to identify with that, because generally it is the highly educated elite who go to theatre. Hopefully other people will also come who can recognise themselves in the stories.

Peace is not for everyone, and art is not therapy

As a child in Bosnia, how did you experience the war then? And how do you look at it now?

Tea Tupajić: Back then, I saw my life as something that goes in a straight line. And suddenly everything disappears. Your life disappears. It’s not just that the buildings collapse, people are killed and your family disappears, but you also disappear yourself. You lose yourself, and that’s the most tragic thing. You lose your childhood.

But you also become someone else. You become mean and selfish. You become mean because you want to survive. You become selfish because you want more sustenance for yourself.

I remember saying to my father at the start of the war: ‘Look! We are in the news, so everyone in the world can see us. Don’t worry, they will come and they will help us.’ But that’s not what happened, and I think I gradually lost hope.

I was seven at the time. But the older I get, the more I realise that these tragedies are experienced by most of the world, and that only a small part of the world, such as the Western European countries or the US, do not go through this kind of experience. When I think of countries that have peace, I wonder what the price was to have and maintain that peace.

Did your work help to process what you went through?

Tea Tupajić: No! Because art is not therapy. Therapy is fun, therapy is safe and it helps you process things. Art, at least the art I do, is very dangerous, because you have to look at yourself if you want to tell the truth.

The Dutchbat project, for example, is not about the soldiers as evil and me as the victim-girl. You also have to go very deep within yourself. And in the case of the Yezidi women, re-diving into what they went through is not without consequences either.

In that sense, what I am doing has not helped me process things. Nor did I expect it to. I don’t make art to make myself feel better. What does matter to me is that I can inspire people who have a similar background. Because there is a difference between seeing yourself as a victim and sitting in a corner, and seeing yourself, or someone similar to you, active on a stage.

The performance Licht (Tea Tupajić/Münchner Kammerspiele) is played in several episodes. The first three took place in Munich, Licht IV was presented on Friday 21 April at the KVS in Brussels. The performance’s content and ending are not fixed.

Samira Bendadi writes for MO* on minorities and migration in society and the region of North Africa.

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