By Nedim Filipovic
Belgrade, Rainbow colored socks struck out against Zeljko Maksimovic’s dark ensemble. His frequent smiles betrayed his sharp features, jet-black hair, and rough stubble. Between long drags from his cigarette and quick sips of an espresso, Zeljko recited anecdote after anecdote, apologizing for talking the night away. Boisterous, opinionated, and a coffee-lover, Zeljko is an actor.
Zeljko, 30, faces the reality of his trade: competition, and insufficient pay. It is not uncommon for actors to struggle, but he is not common: Zeljko is an actor in Serbia.
Only a few of Zeljko’s friends remain in Serbia. Those who left are not necessarily in better economic situations, yet they feel that they are better off because can now count on job security, sound political environments in the EU.
The World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Competitiveness Index found that Serbia experiences among the highest levels of brain drain – the emigration of young talent – in the world.
Zeljko is addressing his situation creatively. He and a few friends produced “What The Fuck Are We Doing Here?,” a play that provides a forum for youth opinions on Serbia’s brain drain phenomenon.
The show criticizes Serbia’s economic situation. A mix between improvisation and spoken word poetry, it explains that people cannot find jobs, and do not have futures.
His art reflects his life—a life that is mirrored by many in Serbia.
Following his father’s death in 1991, a six-year-old Zeljko and his mother traveled from Belgrade to the western town of Loznica to visit family. The war in Bosnia was starting, and what was meant to be a three-day visit turned into a “never-ending three days.”
Zeljko was introduced to acting when he joined a high school amateur theater. Idolizing Sir Anthony Hopkins, he dreamed, and still does, of working in American cinema.
“That’s what you grow up seeing, so I guess you’re bound to dream about that,” Zeljko said.
Zeljko attempted to stifle his passion for acting when he moved back to Belgrade in 2004 to study English. This proved difficult.
After his second year at university he received an unexpected birthday present: money for his acting school entrance exam. Twelve of his fellow students at university chipped in to send Zeljko to the Faculty of Dramatic Arts at the University of Arts Belgrade.
The childhood dream became reality—sort of.
“You go [to an audition] hoping you’ll [at least] get the part of a butler or something,” Zeljko said.
The September showings of “What The Fuck Are We Doing Here?” sold out, prompting more showings in November.
The play was performed in English in an attempt to engage foreigners, and highlight the youth sentiment on the reality of civic engagement.
“We [spoke] in English because whenever you raise your voice in Serbian, somebody shuts you down,” Zeljko said.
Zeljko is close with Ana Strkalj, one of those who remain. Yet, their friendship may soon span continents. “I am looking for jobs in Europe or, maybe even the Far East,” Strkalj added.
Zeljko will also leave. After doing a show in Prague, he fell in love with the city’s theater culture. More importantly, he believes he can find work there.
“On the other hand, my life is here. My friends are here, my family is here,” Zeljko said.
“Basically no one really wants to leave, but you have to somehow.”