Lazar Stojanović (1944-2017): A Posthumous Profile

/ by Svetlana Slapšak

Lazar Stojanović represented an important segment of Yugoslav culture, the most traumatic and the most liberated from all compromising, with any regime, during his life, socialist and nationalist. He belonged to the generation that did not owe anything to the limitations dragging from the inter-war period and from World War II, and opposed the ruling ideology, not because of old grievances, but in the name of new generations and their perspectives. He belonged to the first post-war generation, the one that had to discover a new freedom, not only by the logic of historical development, but also because of the promises given by the new, socialist government. Once Lazar reached his maturity, all of these promises had already been forgotten...


I met Lazar 51 year ago, when he was one of the editors of the Belgrade student weekly Student, which at that time represented the only readable weekly. It was followed by many other youth and student reviews and periodicals in the troubled times of global and Yugoslav student uprisings, from 1966 on. And in Yugoslavia, after the reform and a certain liberalization, which pertained mostly to everyday life commodities, and a more or less discrete introduction of consumerism, the nomenklatura reacted quite wildly to the expected and logical movement in culture, and an ever clearer demand for more democracy and freedom of expression. On the outside, the representation of Yugoslavia as an independent state, not a satellite of the USSR or USA, and a credible leader of the Third World with such a position, demanded to promote a real legal situation – that Yugoslavia did not have laws on censorship regarding freedom of expression. On the inside, that was “compensated” for by the so called “verbal delinquency” (the infamous Article 133 of the Penal Law) and the legal action was initiated only after a “spontaneous” demand came from the working class representatives in theaters, publishing houses, cinema, cultural centers, schools, universities and so on. There would be an outburst of telegrams sent by “ordinary people” to the state media, and published there: This form of public denunciation was meant to cloud the work of the secret services. Theater rehearsals, articles in print or in editing were, of course, closely followed by secret services. This phantom censorship was unpredictable, even if there was a trail of similar cases to study and analyze. Being completely arbitrary, it was constantly producing inner censorial mechanisms in people, but at the same time, it was strengthening the intelligence of those who were courageous enough to challenge it. Lazar Stojanović was amongst them, very early in his life.


While editing the weekly Student, Lazar Stojanović was also writing a satirical column, together with Milivoj Majstorović, under the title “It Will Get Better:” such a merciless satire, which often used the wooden language of the nomenklatura to ridicule it was never seen before in Yugoslavia. Student was stopped by the action initiated among students at the Science and Mathematics school of Belgrade University. It happened at the “forum” at which judo-trained students were attacking Student supporters. I was among them. The new editorial board was nominated according to the wishes of the nomenklatura. The book It Will Get Better, based on the rubric, was banned. In the meantime, Lazar Stojanović finished his BA work at the Academy of Performing Arts in Belgrade: This was the first feature film made at the BA level, and it got all the highest evaluations. The title was The Plastic Jesus. Then somebody remarked that the film might be dangerous, because it featured the amateur shooting of the wedding of Lazar's friend, later theater director Ljubiša Ristić, with some parents of the bride and of the groom ranking high in the Yugoslav Army. Lazar was already serving in the Army. The process was of a closed type: Lazar got three years. His mentor, Aleksandar Petrović, did not help him, his own new film encountered some inexplicable obstacles in reaching the public...The Plastic Jesus was banned and kept in the State Security, where it served as internal teaching material till 1990, when it was first publicly released.


The Plastic Jesus was screened a year ago in MOMA in New York (April 16-21). When I met him in March last year in Belgrade, Lazar was quite thrilled by the fact that the Cinematheque in Belgrade had renewed the copy and made it presentable: It was the only time any state funding and help met his needs. The film itself received favorable reviews. The freshness of Lazar's approach, the collage technique he applied, the choice of some participants (Tomislav Gotovac, a conceptual artist and performer from Zagreb, Vukica Đilas, daughter of the most famous Yugoslav dissident Milovan Đilas), a daring political message that all totalitarianisms have similarities in style... Lazar skillfully combined documentary material from the Nazi sources and some Serbian Quisling state material: They undeniably relate to the well-known socialist propaganda films. In one of several sympathetic reviews of the film in 2016, the author “contextualized” Lazar's film by adding that that was the Belgrade of the young Marina Abramović. No, it was not. It was a city which was boiling with engagement, theoretical virtuosity, clever hints and corrosive sarcasm toward the regime, not foggy arbitrarianism of a basically narcissist talent, benevolently tolerated by the regime as not risky at all.


When Lazar Stojanović got out of the jail he, like some 250 dissidents in Belgrade, did not have a passport. A famous lawyer, Srđa Popović, sent a petition to the OEBS conference held in Belgrade in 1975, and most of these people (myself included) got the passport later on. Lazar could not get any job in Yugoslavia, except for small, temporary – we would say precarious – jobs today. He had to go away, to the Middle and Far East, and to the USA. He was working as a precious stones dealer, translator, antiquarian, producer...occasionally, he was directing in theater and writing. In the 80s, he was in Belgrade from time to time, directing some remarkable performances at alternative festivals, the only possible way for him to work in his natural cultural surroundings: State theaters would not dare to offer him a job, but his friends could smuggle him in different projects. When in Belgrade, he was organizing private debate clubs at different locations and different in style from the “secret university” organized around several expelled professors from the School of Philosophy, the center of Belgradeopposition to the regime since 1968. At the end of 1989, he was associated with the founder and sponsor of a new independent weekly in Belgrade, the same Srđa Popović. The weekly Vreme (Time) launched in 1990 and represented a stronghold of anti-war movement and anti-nationalism in Serbia during the war.


Lazar Stojanović could never get support for another feature film. When the war in Yugoslavia started, he managed to find ways to make several documentaries which deeply marked the global understanding of the war. He was very much the shadow-director of Pawel Pawlikovski (later an Oscar winner for Ida), in his film, Serbian Epics, a documentary on the siege of Sarajevo (1992), filmed from the side of Serbian attackers. Thanks to Lazar's ideas and knowledge, we look at Radovan Karadžić making phone call from the carcass of a chopper, humming epic poems and accompanying himself on the gusle (a simple string instrument), his mother mumbling about the worthless money of the new Serbian state in Bosnia, and Edward Limonov, a Soviet and Russian “dissident” laughing hysterically while firing at will from a light cannon at Sarajevo in the valley below... I saw the film at the Tribeca Human Rights Festival in 1995, sitting in front of Vanessa Redgrave and her company: She left the screening in protest, as she could not take the amount of sarcasm and irony with which this horrible topic was imbued. Lazar Stojanović made some other equally provocative and hard to swallow films, far out of the box that was the mot 'ordre in dealing with the war in Yugoslavia. In 1998, he made a stunning documentary, Almost Serbs, about Serbian racism against the Roma people. Later, he closely worked with the Foundation for Humanitarian Rights in Belgrade, and with the support from this independent institution, he was able to make documentary portraits of Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić and Scorpios, The Home Movie (2007), based on an amateur filming of the execution of several Bosnians following the “dispersed” genocide of people from Srebrenica. This material was discovered by Nataša Kandić, the founder and director of the Foundation for Humanitarian Rights, in a video shop in Šid, a small city at the border with Croatia: The locals were borrowing and watching the video made by their own neighbors, members of the paramilitary units, about their exploits during the war. I remember watching the raw video material at Nataša's apartment, with Lazar and a small group of guests, at New Year's Eve 2006 in Belgrade. The material was crucial in the trial of Radovan Karadžić at the Hague Tribunal. The participants of the slaughter from the video were later tried in Belgrade.


Lazar Stojanović was an elegant man with excellent manners, a rarity in our generation and almost completely lost in the following generations. He expressed himself with perfection, both in style and in logic, but never refrained from his corosive irony, starting with himself as a primary target. We were good friends and worked together on many occasions. Just before the war, he staged Aristophanes' Acharnians (a citizen opposing the majority by making his own peace with the enemy) and wanted me to translate the original for him. I never saw the preformance, due to the war. At our last meeting in Belgrade, he found the typed translation, which I’d lost during the war, and gave it to me. He invited me to become a member of the Transnational Radical Party, founded in Italy by Marco Panella: It happenned over a dinner with Panella at the Belgrade restaurant Madera, in 1985, and we joked that, with some ten members, we were the second strongest political party in Yugoslavia, after the Communist Party. The official language of the TNR party was Esperanto... I also wrote an introduction to the book, It Will Get Better, when it was finally published in 1990. Lazar significantly moved on from his early anarchist views toward moderate liberalism.


If I should have to place Lazar in an epoch/culture, it would be in 18th century France – an encyclopaedic mind, ready both to theorize and seek practical solutions, never distanced from life and politics, sensible, cynical, gnostic, free, creative and joyful. In fact, he was a Buddhist by choice. In our youth, he was known for inventing things – the double helix whirling in two directions, or plastic fins for quicker swimming and many other inventions, all in the general line of how to get rich and finance the global revolution. I like to remember him as I met him in lower Manhattan, one spring in the afternoon back in 1995, walking with Dubravka Ugrešić. We’d just left the opening of the exhibition of Komar&Melamid, and were indulging in our mostly cynical comments. Lazar took us to his antiquarian shop, trippling our Balkan superiority over the post-soviet culture in a vivid debate on the way. There was this figure in counterlight, speaking “our” language, relaxed as if we were back home, or anywhere else in the world, perceptive and distanced, and yet open to any nonsense or a new knowledge, the day we took Manhattan...

Svetlana Slapšak

trained in Classical Studies/Linguistics at the University in Beograd. Retired professor of Anthropology of Ancient Worlds and Anthropology of Gender at ISH, Ljubljana Graduate School of Humanities since 1996. Dean of ISH 2004-2014. Published cca 70 books. Writes academic books/articles, essays, novels, travelogue, drama and translates from Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, French, English, Slovenian and SCB languages.