Saša Babič on documentary theater performance Grannies

GRANNIES, documentary performance

Authors: Sendi Bakotić, Ana Marija Brđanović, Tjaša Črnigoj, Anja Sabol, Vanda Velagić

Art is always a reflection of time and space, and therefore, of society; it points, indirectly or directly, to individual phenomena. Here, one of the functions of art stands out: to show a society, to bring out of the shadows everything that is too often overlooked. This is precisely one of the aims of socially engaged theatres – in their performances, they deal with social security, equality, social inclusion, and a dignified life. These emphases touch the audience, as they show the critical points in the most illustrative way; the viewer becomes aware of the urgent issues and assumes a critical position. The performance, based on narration and explanation of circumstances, connects the audience directly to the issues and influences him, broadening their horizons. Here, the influence of art, in this case theatre, is clearly shown, how much impact it can have on society.

The performance Grannies, which took place as part of the 2021 Mladi Levi festival, is based on anthropological research – on interviews with 4 retired women who collect plastic packaging: Albina, Ljudmila, Marta and Suzana (the names are pseudonyms). Following the principle of interpretation and narration, the performance unfolds their stories with completely different backgrounds and with completely different life paths that have led them to their current state. The retired women collect bottles in exchange for small sums of money in order to be able to afford “at least something”. Namely, in 2005 a law was passed in Croatia according to which citizens are entitled to monetary compensation (50 lipas/bottle) if they bring an empty beverage container to the store. The law was adopted with the aim of reducing waste, i.e. for ecological motives, but it ended up as one of the ways for individuals to get out of extreme poverty by collecting minimum sums.

The performance uses vitality and humour to expose the cruel reality of poverty of the four retired women, putting emphasis on the fact that retired women are among the groups facing greatest risk of poverty due to class and gender differences in society. At the end of the performance, the authors point out the stereotypical thinking of the people around them with the general reasoning of “those who rummage through garbage are dirty, they are poor because they are lazy and because they don’t work”. The socially engaged performance does not only deal with (social) security, but also with social exclusion and the inability to live a dignified life – in this case, of the retired women, and yet the performance is an allegory. It grabs our head and points our eyes towards the problem of poverty, since the latter is prevalent among vulnerable groups: the elderly, the disabled and the less educated, living in remote areas. The performance exposes both gender (women already earn less on average) and age discrimination. However, it should not be overlooked that geographic discrimination also contributes to the problem, as well as the time and political system – one of the women came from Russia, got married in Croatia during socialist Yugoslavia, but remained stateless for seven years after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, she worked all this time, earning her living as a freelancer and taking care of her child as a divorced and single mother. She spent her entire adult life in Croatia, she has a university degree, she worked for a living, and yet – she could not avoid poverty. The system does not recognize temporary, precarious work as part of the length of service as a condition for obtaining a pension. This is certainly not only a problem in Croatia, it is the same in most of the so-called Western world. The situation is similar in Slovenia as well: the minimum length of service for obtaining a pension is 15 years, and the minimum pension is to 260.61 euros (Official Gazette of the Republic of Slovenia, 2021). In 2020, as many as 42% of pensioners received a pension lower than 600 euros, which is not even enough to cover the minimum living expenses (which are officially set at 613 euros). This means that almost half of the elderly in Slovenia are at risk of poverty or poor: according to the Statistical Office of the Republic of Slovenia, as many as 90,000 pensioners were below the poverty line in 2019. These are people who have worked and been active for most of their lives, people who have knowledge and experience, but have nevertheless ended up in poverty and, all too often, social exclusion.

The performance is definitely among those that do not leave anyone indifferent, that have an impact, that address the spectator, establish a (direct and indirect) dialogue with him. In doing so, it acts as an influencer that teaches and educates. At the end of the performance, the audience put voluntary contributions in a box for these four pensioners whose stories we get to know, as if we were buying the programme of the performance. We left the theatre in good spirits, as the authors and performers managed to put on a show full of energy and humour, but with a bitter aftertaste. As I cycled back home, the thoughts of all the complaints about how we can’t afford all the modern decadence seemed very perverse… And this perversity is blatant.

The performance definitely evokes the feeling that it should be seen by everyone, because is there any other way to present the real backgrounds and causes of poverty to the general public than in this graphic manner? How else can we achieve empathy in the wider context of the capitalist mentality?

Saša Babič