Travelling Without Moving

Filed under: Press clipped — Tags: , , — heart.will.travel @ 9:35 am


There is no speakeasy history in Serbia. In fact, stories of its hidden bars are not very old either. They’re as old as The Federal Association of Globe Trotters, the first undercover café in the Serbian capital, founded in 1999. When it was established, a myth started spreading about a charming secret drinking den, where you can enter only if you know someone who has visited it already. Knowing its visitors or just the address of this bar meant you could impress people with your insider knowledge of Belgrade’s reputable nightlife.

Hidden in a basement of a nondescript apartment building in Despota Stefana Lazarevića Street, this café started off as a truly unique treat, with a reservations-only concept. Today, everybody is allowed to come. When you get to the edifice of number 7, push open the gate, step downward and knock on the wooden door. You will find a colourful bar, decorated with hundreds of souvenirs and random objects from around the world that make the place look like a warehouse or a museum. A couple of sofas, chairs and tables are scattered around for comfort, and nice cushions boost the warm feel of the club.

After the club started with no ordinance or hierarchy was established, some other backdoor bars started popping up in Belgrade. This club was different. However, one of the founders of the Association, Mirko Stanković, claims that he didn’t want to create a pretentious or trendy place, nor has the hidden bar concept been a marketing trick:

“When we started operating the café, it was 1999, the period after the bombing of Serbia. The darkest period of my life I can say, because there were no jobs and opportunities, nightlife was dead, and you couldn’t get out of the city or country. Me and my partner Nebojša Jovičić were trying to figure out what we’re going to do, at that time, I used to live in this building, just above the place which is now The Association of Globe Trotters, and which was used by one publishing house. When they left, I came to an idea to rent that cellar and make a club for friends and acquaintances. After some time, Nebojša joined me, and we used the minimum amount of money to rent and arrange this place. I am a set designer, I had some contacts, and it wasn’t hard for me to do the interior. People started dropping by, first friends, then friends of friends, and soon we had to limit the entrance in some way. Anyone who wanted to come had to be announced, had to have a recommendation. Today it’s not like that any more, but back then, there were just way too many people who wanted to come and we couldn’t receive that many guests. We were not into crowded parties that would destroy both the club and us. Also, people easily get bored with crowded smoky bars. So it was as simple as that, there were no pretentious ideas of any kind. Without media and marketing this club started working well and got its own soul and physiognomy. We got furniture from friends and acquaintances, and most of it is still used today.”

The Federal Association of Globe Trotters

Because of the old furniture and decor, guests have nicknamed the place “Grandma’s Room”. When the café was about to get registered, Mirko and Nebojša were thinking of another name, and that’s when The Association of Globe Trotters came about.

“Nebojša has travelled a lot, he is a tourist guide,” says Mirko, “And I’m into spiritual travelling, not just mind and thought trips, but travelling in dreams too. So the name came naturally to us. We opened the bar in the time when it was impossible to travel out of Serbia, so we built a place in order to gather our friends and travel through interaction, exchange of knowledge, love, information, through getting closer to each other. Some people received our ideas with sympathy, and our goal was to attract a certain part of the population, with a certain sensibility. Two or three years after opening, Vanja Dobra joined us as a third party owner. He is a big traveller, and he brought his soul into the whole thing.”

IMG_0005The house on Despota Stefana Lazarevića was built in the 1920’s, constructed by the famous Serbian architect Demajo. Back in the day, tenants of the building used to keep horses on the ground floor. The premises of The Association of Globe Trotters was once three flats, used by servants. After World War II, they were adapted for living as a coherent architectural whole. When the bar was opened, Mirko Stanković designed the interior, but it was his guests who gave the club a special touch by bringing old chairs, tables and sofas as small parts of their own private histories. That’s how the place got its ‘30s look and warmth.

“When I designed the club’s interior, I used some of my knowledge of Feng Shui. I wanted to make this place comfortable for everyone. Every corner in here is different and everyone can find a place that he or she likes. And the place in general doesn’t look pretentious or imposing. My primary goal with the design was to make everyone who enters our club forget the outside world,” says Mirko Stanković.

For love rather than money, Mirko, Nebojša and Vanja have been running the place for the past nine years. Mirko confesses that everything they achieved with the club came through enthusiasm more than through business.

“When it comes to business, I guess we’re doing alright. We’re trying our best, getting along, but we are not yuppies who invested a lot of money, and now expect to see profit. We invested bit by bit, and with time this place got its identity and audience. We have some ambitions on making the club bigger, we made some arrangements and plans, but it’ll take some time.”

IMG_0006From the very beginning, The Association of Globe Trotters promoted the idea of sharing and bringing in souvenirs, books, magazines, drawings, parts of furniture. Here you can sit next to a table with a sewing machine, old handbooks, lamp shades dating from the 50’s, while a  cat sneaks around somewhere near your feet.

“Whatever is brought in, it will stay here, and you can be sure that your children will also find it in the club. Whoever gives some sort of contribution to this place, it will be accepted and welcomed, this is an Association, a place where people get together and share something. I think people don’t have the consciousness of what it means to give. It may sound tendencious, but it’s the meaning of life for me. It’s ‘what you give is what you get’ you know. I can say I planted my life philosophy here”, says Mirko.

The enthusiasm and ideas of the Association’s founders started to spread throughout the former Yugoslavia. A cousin of the famous Croatian actor Frano Lasić opened a café in Split, Globe Trotters. Mirko is currently negotiating with people from Zagreb, who want to establish a club with an interior designed by him, called The Federal Association of Globe Trotters.

“It’s been our idea, to have chapters all around the world. After these ‘branch offices’ in Croatia, I can say that we’re spreading brotherhood and unity, without being pathetic. We didn’t have much to do with the stupid things that happened in the former Yugoslavia,” Mirko observes.
Two years ago, he was a part of cultural exchange between Belgrade and Amsterdam. He represented Belgrade with his club and was invited to design a bar in there. People from the world of art, such as musicians, painters, filmmakers, like to drop by often to have a drink in Belgrade’s first hidden bar. They bring their friends along and recommend the place to them. This is probably the best marketing a club can get.

“I think that this club is considered charismatic among some people, but not all. I don’t think that everybody should like our bar, I don’t have those kind of ambitions, the Hebrew people have this traditional story, that they keep some place just for themselves. They don’t want to recommend it, as it loses its soul when too many people know about it. I don’t think that this story should be taken literally, but it’s a fact that I haven’t used marketing, and the bar started living and growing without it. People from media like to use this place for different interviews and shootings. That satisfies me, because of that I know that this bar is worth something. This club is a modest business story, but this club cures my soul. When people come from abroad, I’d like to think that they feel this is like a station, an accommodation for travellers or lost souls. We’ve got everything here!”

Writers, painters and photographers have had their promotions and exhibitions here. Some musicians spontaneously hold private shows in the club. Such was the case of Croatian singer Massimo Savić and various Belgrade musicians. You can hear all kinds of music in the bar, even a Gypsy trumpet orchestra, but not turbo folk. Although the bar has a music programme, it’s mostly spontaneous — private shows that you can attend only if you know someone who can help you get in. The Association’ organizes parties, celebrations, fashion shows, even weddings.

IMG_0007“I don’t like to point out celebrities who’ve been here, but I am happy that writer David Albahari has visited us, the late Zoran Đinđić too. Famous actors like Rade Šerbedžija, Anica Dobra and Adrian Brody have come with their film crews. Besides people from the film industry, musicians are often here. Ian Brown visited us, Gotan Project, Darko Rundek… People like to show this place to their friends from abroad. Also, foreigners come here on their own, I don’t know how they find us,” says Mirko.

The Federal Association of Globe Trotters has several thousand members in Serbia alone. There’s no membership fee. Actually, you just need to have good will and be able to tell a story from one of your trips in order to become a member. Mirko, Vanja and Nebojša believe in the exchange of experiences. Mirko emphasizes that they’re not workaholics, they are just very dedicated to what they do, because it’s something they love.

“We didn’t make too many compromises of our starting idea and for its marketing. We’d like to keep the soul and integrity of this place. Working here isn’t a burden to us, we work with a wish to make something that we will share with someone afterwards. And that’s the whole philosophy. I don’t want to fall into a rut, that’s why I created the Association. It really doesn’t matter what you do in your life, it’s just how you do it,” he affrims with confidence.

Recently, the Association of Globe Trotters finally put up a visible sign, only because it’s required by law, “Time changes everything, maybe we will have ads one day and more visible signs. Who knows?” says Mirko. “By now, this way of working has gotten sympathy, and it’s an advantage in a way. People feel connected with this place. The only problem I have is that people get way too relaxed here, even my co-workers are sometimes too lazy, most of them like to come here and relax, not really work.”

Dušan Lopušina / “White city” magazine, October 2008




Bring Your Own Films


Going to a cinema seems like the least popular way to see a new film in Belgrade – last year’s statistics show that, on average, only three percent of capital cinema capacities are used during a day. However, there are movies that are hard to find in a regular, illegal way – at numerous carton-table pirate DVDs dealers around the town, or through Internet downloads. These films, independent, low-budget, or just out of the mainstream, are becoming more and more popular among Belgrade’s cinema-goers.

While recent blockbusters are being shown in almost empty cinema halls, capital’s „Free zone“ film festival, focused on socially engaged, marginalized films and documentaries, is having sold out screenings a couple of years in a row. In that kind of cultural and social climate, when the oldest and biggest city movie houses are being turned into caffes and betting places, Belgrade has seen a new cinema space established last year, the Illegal Cinema. And it’s not operated by illegal DVDs dealers — it is, actually, providing a legal way to see recent films for free.

white city

Founded in June 2007 by cultural organization TkH-Centre and Belgrade independent scene Druga Scena, the Illegal Cinema is a place where marginalized and hard to find films are shown. Entrance is free of charge, and everybody is allowed to participate in suggesting or acquiring films for screening, under one condition — to speak about them and initiate discussion after the end of a film. In this way, Illegal Cinema wants to erase a strong border between editor and audience. TkH-Centre states that this cinema is an open, educational project, focused on exchanging content different than those existing in mainstream art institutions, thus influencing local cultural setting.

In a limited space of some 30 seats, screenings are held of documentary, activist, queer, anarchist, forbidden and other underground films.

The Illegal Cinema is located in the new facility dedicated to capital’s independent cultural scene, called Magacin, in the very heart of Belgrade. Screenings are scheduled every Sunday at 6 p.m. The cinema space isn’t big, but it’s large enough for a new, underground movie house. Its premises were formerly a warehouse for books, used by the Nolit publishing company.

Besides films, Magacin is a place where you can see various exhibitions and attend debates on cultural issues. Once in Kraljevića Marka street, which is near Zeleni venac green market, find number 4, in front of graffiti-filled passage which will take you to the entrance of Magacin.
This alternative center is not a squat. It is formally attached to the public institution Dom Omladine, and established on an idea to merge cultural NGOs and public space.

— Our goal is to provide space and logistics to the initiatives that are valuable, but otherwise lack the opportunities to become visible, explains Sergej Beuk, programme editor of Magacin. For some time now there has been huge demand for such a place, tailored exclusively for the avant-garde cultural scene — he adds, announcing plans to expand Magacin’s capacity.

Most recently, the Illegal Cinema hosted a screening of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a documentary in which the director Kirby Dick tries to trace members of the evasive Motion Pictures Association of America’s independent council, an influential regulatory body which censors and rates all produced video materials for broadcasting. Among the most striking titles was Execution of a Teenage Girl, a secretly filmed documentary about the public hanging of Atifa, 16 year-old Iranian girl, prosecuted by the so called Morals Police, on charges of crimes against chastity.

— The idea of this kind of cinema shows that in Serbia there is a serious spectator’s core which is interested in so-called art movies. I think that we, besides Internet and two or three Belgrade film festivals, don’t have a chance to be informed enough about what’s going on in current European and world film, — says Belgrade film director Mladen Đorđević, known for short horror flicks and a successful documentary on Serbian porn-industry, called Made in Serbia. Action of organizing more such festivals should be supported by the state, its competent ministry, because such projects are not very profitable — adds Đorđević.

More recent controversial screenings in Illegal Cinema included Raspberry Reich, hard-core gay porn disguised as a political critic (or vice versa). Besides the not-so-well-known authors, and films by Serbian “black wave” directors such as Jovan Jovanović, Illegal Cinema hosted screenings of documentaries on migration and human trafficking. Part of programme is dedicated to forbidden movies, most prominent being Salò, by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. After this film was shown in Italy, Pasolini was killed. The Illegal Cinema has also displayed a documentary Whoever Says The Truth Shall Die, in which the role of pro-fascist political forces in Pasolini’s murder is clearly shown.
While underground movie houses are new to Belgrade, they are a wide-spread phenomenon in European capitals, such as Paris or London.

In Manchester, a group called Filmonik hosts a “bring your own film” night, which is a concept similar to the Illegal Cinema. Screenings are reserved for marginalized films only, and are held in a jazz club.

Paris is famous for an underground cinema, constructed in a series of interconnected caves of some 400 square meters under the famous Palais de Chaillot. Remnants of this cinema were found by the police in 2004. It had been used by a group called La Mexicaine de la Perforation, who hijacked public spaces for art. Mission of this group was to “reclaim and transform disused city spaces for the creation of zones of expression for free and independent art.” One such zone was created in Belgrade for the first time.

Other than the Illegal Cinema, less regular, underground screenings in Serbian capital are rarely organized by various alternative movements, mostly in privately owned spaces, such as galleries of cafes.
Director Mladen Đorđević says that the idea of Illegal Cinema also shows that the energy of local film lovers hasn’t faded away:

— In a time when old films are easily accessible through Internet, it looks like there is not enough enthusiasm to investigate and reach these film rarities. There should be more “illegal” organizing of this kind, and these Illegal Cinemas should remind of film-worshipping places, which are secretly organized in a time when “film religion” is endangered.

Dušan Lopušina / “White city” magazine, November 2008


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