2020. Bare Life - Danilo Kiš - Aleksandar Mandić
Kiš’s last work
The impetus for the serial Bare Life began in Israel in 1986. Danilo was a guest of the Van Lear Institute, where he met Eva Nahir and Zeni Lebl, two Serbian Jewish women. Both believed that only Kiš was the right man to write their life stories. He listened to them for half a day. When he returned, he told me their painful and wonderous destinies, about which he did not wish to write but suggested that I go there and film a documentary about, as he put it, “our Shoah.”
I agree, but only on the condition that he be in front of the camera – the narrator who will take them by the hand and escort them through their memories. He laughed at my proposal. “Nonsense,” he waved his hand in a signature gesture which I loved so, and from which I learned so much. He never owned a television set, nor the desire for such a presence in households. It took three years to convince him, so that we only embarked on the journey as late as March 1989 with a small team headed to Israel. We filmed for a week across the country. I listened to their testimonies – shaken and flabbergasted at what is possible to survive. My friend Danilo asks for details and facts like an inquisitor from one of his novels, but with sympathy and attention.
The penultimate day, we were in front of the Wailing Wall. As if in a cheap pulp fiction story, so alien to him, he is struck by shoulder pain right there and then. The shadow of death that his lungs had been carrying for several years reared its head. The next day, we departed – we for Belgrade, he for Paris. The suspicion was there confirmed: the illness had returned, hope had disappeared. Doctors recommend renewed chemotherapy, Danilo refuses. A little more of beloved Dubrovnik, a little more strolling down the sea...and that’s it. October, the end in Paris, and a funeral in Belgrade.
He never asked to see, nor was I in a condition without him to view any of the footage for months. After he was buried, I began to seek closure by repaying this debt by preserving his last work. I toured and filmed the places which are mentioned in the series. Then we edited together. He was right next to me in every dilemmas, in every ordering, in every shot selection, in every cut, I listened to what he had to say. And I am certain I did not betray him.
The series consists of four episodes of 215 minutes. It was broadcast from March 12-15, 1990 from a studio in Sarajevo. Yet again, as if in an allegory too unusuable for art, it was the last thing that people in Yugoslavia had watched together live. Except in Croatia, of course, where matters “needed to be checked” before they could commit to broadcasting a few days later.
Below is the complete transcript of the series. Even I, who practically know it by heart, am stunned at the incredible potency, human and literary force which radiates from the dialogue due primarily to Danilo’s conversational style.
I have nothing to add to it.
Before us is a stirring book, a confessional testimonial about a concentration camp into which thousands of people were sent without any judicial process or legal act. Two women, Eva Panić and Ženi Lebl, both Jews from Serbia, endured tremendous hardship to avoid fascist pogroms and gas chambers to survive World War II in Yugoslavia. Alas, they had not enjoyed their freedom for long. A severe repression campaign ensues, persecuting suspected sympathizers of Soviet-brand socialism, a crime for which a single word, rumor, or simply being present as the matter was discussed, was sufficient. In Aleksandar Mandić’s television series, Eva and Ženi bear witness about these methods they survived. They insisted their interlocutor be Danilo Kiš, first and foremost because they knew and cherished his literary accomplishments, and secondly because they shared his view that every political and other fogging of historical facts and literature is a form of intellectual violence. Data, Kiš held, must not endure the coercion of political correctness, as this coercion stips them of their truthfulness and relegates them to lies, delusions and propaganda. It is therefore a precious book at our disposal today, a reservoir of testiomonial memory, honest confession and detailed description. The book is at once a documentarz record and a dire warning.
From episode to episode, from detail to detail, an endless renewal of the destinies of two protagonists, Ženi Lebl and Eva Panić Nahir, unfolds before the viewers in Danilo Kiš and Aleksandar Mandić’s superb series. They lived their lives in a cruel and dizzing epoch in which no major historical event bypassed them. The wonderous strength of the two protagonists to refuse to submit to the disasters of life and history, to preserve the dignity that they paid the highest price for, and then to remember and testify about it, is recorded in the poignant television series Bare Life. For the first time, the transcript of this conversation is made available to readers as a living testiment of two lives and an era of misery and terror.