Production part of larger symposium on gender violence in war

The Bosnian genocide will be explored on stage at the University of Ottawa in a visceral production of Cheers to Sarajevo that immerses the viewer in the front lines of ethnic conflict.

Cheers to Sarajevo, created in 2014 by playwright Aimeé Mica Mtuli, tells the story of a South African photojournalist who travels to Yugoslavia to photograph the conflict taking place there. What begins as a “safari of other people’s pain and suffering,” as Mtuli put it, turns into the photojournalist intensely following the illegal romance of two people separated by ethnic tension and nationalism.

“We follow the story of a Serbian man, Alexander, and a Muslim woman, Mirela, who have been in a relationship for years and years, despite their ethnic differences,” Mtuli said. “But now, all of a sudden, they have to decide what side of the fence they’re on. We just see how nationalism slowly splits this beautiful relationship apart.”

Although Mtuli is not Bosnian, she spent two years on exchange in Serbia where she lived with a Bosnian Muslim woman. Although she was young when she visited, the story of Yugoslavia later resonated with her own family history of trauma—her father’s parents were Holocaust survivors, her mother’s parents are refugees from Yemen, and she grew up in Israel.

“The best way to heal myself and to tell these people’s stories is through theatre,” Mtuli said.

The photojournalist was added because Mtuli knows a South African photojournalist who spent time in the Balkan conflict. She thought it would be an interesting angle to give the story.

“Telling a story through the eyes of the media just seemed very important to me,” she explained.

The writing process wasn’t easy either, considering that one hour, Mtuli would be sitting with a war criminal who would be indicted for war crimes if his identity was revealed, and then the next hour would be spent with the victims of sexual violence and rape warfare.

“We went on quite a journey of research, speaking to former war criminals … we spoke to one or two women who had been in a rape camp somewhere in Bosnia, and we spoke to snipers,” Mtuli said. “We tried to get a full picture of what happened there.”

It was also difficult to get the actors into the right mindset, since none of them had grown up in a war zone.

The play has been performed a few times worldwide, but this is its first production in North America. Mtuli—who is also the lead actress—was invited to perform the piece on the opening night of the upcoming 21st Century Reflections on Sexual Violence in Wars, its Transgenerational and Transnational Impact symposium, hosted by the U of O’s Central and Eastern European Studies Research Group and the Studies in Migration Research Group.

“They were having a conference there anyways, about rape warfare and gender-based violence, and Cheers to Sarajevo is completely so topical to that. It just seemed like a very fitting environment to do Cheers in,” Mtuli explained.

The conference will also feature films from Bosnia-Herzegovina and panels on gender violence in WWII and the Balkan conflict, and the effects across generations.

The production will also be done in memory of Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrov, a South African who worked in Bosnia during the conflict, who was killed two years ago in a car accident.

Cheers to Sarajevo premieres Tuesday, March 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Academic Hall with a pay-what-you-can admission.