Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Story of a Bojana Girl.

“No… no, my birthday’s in July.”

This is easily the last sentence I’m expecting to hear as I stand in front of actor, Bojana Novakovic, holding a bottle of champagne, a birthday card and a small gift.

Despite thorough research, it appears the internet can be misleading.  Who knew!?

Fortunately, like a fat man walking across a frozen lake – without trying, I’ve broken the ice.  Novakovic, who I’ve managed to catch for 20 minutes between rehearsals, seems thoroughly entertained by this comedy of errors and after a few laughs and reassuring comments she appears more surprised that even Wikipedia was an unreliable source.

“That’s so strange, because the woman who did my Wikipedia article actually knows me quite well,” laughs Novakovic.

It’s good to see that the actor, who’s currently rehearsing at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, has a good sense of humour.  Without it, it’s easy to be more than a little intimidated by Novakovic when speaking with her.  She’s confident, unabashed and at only age 30 she’s already received an AFI award, starred alongside some of Hollywood’s biggest stars including Mel Gibson and Will Smith, and co-founded a theatre company ‘Ride on Theatre’ with good friend Tanya Goldberg.

The feelings of inadequacy start creeping-up on the interviewer.

Novakovic certainly isn’t afraid to take chances either.  Most recently, she starred in ‘The Blind Date Project’, an improvised show about companionship and loneliness, based on a blind date between two people who met online.  Her ‘date’ was a different mystery performer every night, and not even Novakovic knew who was going to show up.  A big gamble for a performer who’d had a long time between drinks before this show.

“I hadn’t been on stage for two years prior to that,” says Novakovic rather nonchalantly.

“I hadn’t actually met Toby [Truslove] before he did ‘The Blind Date Project’.”

However, rather than being frightened by the unknown, Novakovic seems to relish it.

“[Blind Date Project] was completely different with each performer.

“There was humour, devastation, desperation, disturbing behavior and then with Xavier [Samuel] and Truslove for example, the characters really found love,” says Novakovic.

Even with a wealth of experience and self-confidence, Bojana Novakovic is very much in the early stages of a career that’s already seen her, among other things – play a gymnast, a fascist punk, a prostitute, a chef and a student.  She’s killed, been killed (by Satan and the US Government), some would argue one in the same, and watched others kill.  She’s even thrown in some rape, kissing, karaoke and cooking for good measure.

Yet for the girl who migrated from Serbia to Australia when she was 7, it’s still amusing when she goes back to Serbia that what she’s most often recognised for in this illustrious body of work, is in fact one of her less acclaimed roles.

“Back home… woops, see I still call [Serbia] ‘home’.

“That was really strange… being in a club and having all these people saying ‘oh my God – you were on Heartbreak High!’” she laughs.

With her new film ‘The Burning Man’ out now, and her performance being highlighted as a standout, it’s a far cry from Heartbreak High.  However the actor seems unafraid about resisting the call of Hollywood and content to make her own choices.

“I’m all about doing things that will make me a better actor.

“Things like this [The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself], and the ‘Blind Date Project’ are what really drive me,” stresses Novakovic.

She even makes time to star in a number of Serbian films, flying to Serbia for 10 days just to shoot her scenes for the film ‘Skinning’.  A decision she acknowledges occasionally has her agents sprouting grey hairs.

Of course one can understand how agents or fellow actors looking for that big break might be confused, even puzzled by Novakovic’s decisions to not only take the road less travelled, but actively put so much energy into forging her own path.

Her latest work, ‘The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself’, brings to life and the stage, the writings of real-life early 20th century writer, Mary MacLane.

Novakovic plays MacLane, who according to the show’s description is a “self-proclaimed genius and recluse whose immodesty knows no bounds.”  A character so far removed from Novakovic’s own personality, it’s a testament to the actor’s abilities that she would even attempt such a part.

“Mary’s world is an early 20th century world, but her writing and her ideas and her thoughts are incredibly contemporary, which is why they interest us,” says Novakovic.

“Her first book sold over 100,000 copies.

“That’s the equivalent of Harry Potter for her time,” says Novakovic.

It’s more than self-confidence that appears to be a formula for Novakovic’s success, much more.  In fact, she seems to thrive on challenging and combating any self-doubt, head on.

“If I think I’m not going to be able to do something, then I have to do it,” says Novakovic.

Fortunately for her, it seems there’s not much she can’t do or hasn’t done.  So it’s easy to forgive Novakovic for letting some of the most interesting moments in her life slip her mind briefly.  This includes her exciting real-life role as a ‘3-day fiancĂ©e’, the result of copious amounts of Serbian alcohol and an overseas adventure.

“Engaged!?  Wait, when!?” She hurriedly looks over at my pages of research.

“Oh yes, to a Serbian farm boy,” she smiles nostalgically.

No other such drastic life choices seem to be on the cards just yet but regardless, Novakovic seems very upbeat about her future and says she’s looking forward to her debut as Mary MacLane.

“It’s actually been really enjoyable to have the opportunity to talk about and promote a show you genuinely believe in.  It’s really great.” says Novakovic.

Despite the inherent film or stage-worthiness of her life story so far, when I ask her who would play her if such a film were to be made, Novakovic seems doubtful, but she’s quite confident in the casting.

“I’m not sure about [a movie being made], but my sister would play me.”

As for the girl who got a D in grade 3 English, Novakovic smiles confidently and suggests she’d give herself a much better result now.

“Oh an ‘A’, definitely.”

The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself is at the Malthouse Theatre from November 25th to December 11th.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Flares, Fun and Football: The game that had everything, except goals.

Three days after Melbourne played host to a friendly soccer match between Australia and Serbia, it is fair to say a 0:0 draw has rarely garnered so much attention.

Almost 30,000 people turned out on a chilly Tuesday night to Etihad Stadium to see two world-class football teams in an eagerly anticipated World Cup re-match.  Long before the first whistle was blown, it was evident the night would not disappoint.

In a game worthy of uniquely European football derbies there was colour, noise, politics, posters and fireworks.  No one was hurt (on or off the field), a small handful of supporters were removed by police (as is often the case at most large-scale international sporting events) and several flares were ignited (first by Socceroos supporters, then by both sides).  So why is it being painted as such a troublesome affair?

The main point of controversy is the unveiling of a banner from level 1 of the stadium displaying an image of Serbian hero and accused war criminal, Ratko Mladic (currently on trial at The Hague) between the text “Free Mladic.”  Controversy, which is perhaps rather ironic considering that most people outside of the Balkans have no idea who Ratko Mladic is or what significance he has to Serbian people, other than what they have read on their Ninemsn internet homepages within the past two weeks.

One thing is clear however; with various sections of Australian media pouncing on the opportunity to extract a sellable story from a scoreless game, and ill-informed individuals turning into political pundits, the end result can never be a positive one.

Victoria Police Inspector, Michael Beattie was quick to highlight his well-tuned generalisation skills from the outset.

“The only group that we had problems with were the active Serb Supporters.

These idiots… that was part of their viewing culture and it is just trash,” he said.

Insp. Beattie omitted any mention of the Socceroos supporter misbehaviour.  This included throwing the first flares of the evening and pointing lasers at Serbian players including Zoran Tosic and Neven Subotic during free kicks, an omission that has angered many in the wider Serbian community.

“I think that’s absurd,” said Abbey Stojanovic, who attended the match with her family.

“There was definitely controversy caused by some Australian supporters.  He really has picked on the Serbian supporters unfairly,” she said.

Suzana Tasic also attended the match with her family and challenged the validity of Insp. Beattie’s claims.

“Everyone in the stadium was passionate, just like for any other soccer game. Flares and chants are part of sporting nature.

“I think that it’s easy to point the finger at one or two people rather than look at the big picture – there were no major issues at all in the grand scheme of things at the game,” Mrs. Tasic said.

Insp. Beattie’s comments have been labeled ‘xenophobic’.  Some have even questioned the legitimacy of the “un-Australian” label he attached to supporters he deemed unfavourable, given Australian spectators’ own checkered past.

After the Geelong Football Club’s most recent Grand Final win, police arrested 35 supporters for being drunk and another 12 for offensive or anti-social behaviour.

Following the 2009 Boxing Day Test held at the MCG, 91 people were kicked out, 13 of them arrested for drunkenness.  Police also issued 28 penalty notices for drunk and anti-social behaviour, such as offensive language.  All culprits were “Australians.”

Despite this, Insp. Beattie has remained defiant, saying the stands at Etihad Stadium were full of “dancing and a lot of unhealthy carry-on”.

No word yet on whether Insp. Beattie plans on laying charges against Channel 7’s ‘Dancing With The Stars’.

With various news agencies smelling blood and getting into a feeding frenzy, FFA head of corporate affairs and communications, Kyle Patterson was quick to praise the success of the game and quash claims supporters marred it in any way.

“To say that they’re somehow a problem for football and a problem for the Serbian community is absolutely outrageous and we won’t be a part of that.”

Even after the last flare was extinguished and the final whistle had been blown, the ‘Free Mladic’ banner has continued to draw widespread attention, as was no doubt intended.

To put the issue into context, almost two weeks ago to the day, Serbian General, Ratko Mladic was captured and extradited to the war crimes court in The Hague – an action unpopular with a vast majority of Serbs who still view him as a hero.  Many Serbs who were actually saved and protected by Mladic’s forces from Islamic fundamentalist fighters managed to escape to Australia in the 90s.  Some were even in attendance at the match on Tuesday night.

For many of them, the memories of genocide against Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are still fresh, further fuelling their anger over General Mladic’s arrest.

According to filmmaker and political activist, Boris Malagurski, the protesters had every right to give voice to that discontent, so long as it was done peacefully.

“[General Mladic] hasn’t been convicted so he’s not a war criminal.

“[John F. Kennedy] himself once said that we’re all free to disagree with the law as long as we don’t disobey it, so we’re free to support who we want and it’s interesting that we have to remind Westerners of their own values” Mr. Malagurski said.

While the FFA has stated it does not support the use of football as a platform for political protest, mixing sport and politics is no new concept.  Sport has a passion, profile and influence unmatched throughout the world and has long been a tempting tool for activists.

Amongst boycotts of Olympic Games and refusals to tour South Africa during apartheid, one of history’s most prominent examples of peaceful protest was on the sporting field.

At a Mexico Olympics presentation ceremony in 1968, black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won the gold and bronze medals for the 200 metres, made a celebrated civil rights protest.  They mounted the dais barefoot and raised one gloved hand in the black-power salute.

Both players were suspended and ordered out of the Games village.  Only after more than 20 years were their actions deemed “eloquent expressions of non-violent protest,” according to Olympic historian, David Wallechinsky.

“It’s about showing you stand for something bigger than sport,” said one of the Serbian protesters.

In stark contrast to their recent coverage of the Mladic protest, The Age newspaper in fact published an article less than five years ago entitled “It’s refreshing when sport and politics mix.”  What a difference a few years makes.

The loudest criticism has come from the Bosnian Muslim community who took offence to the banner remaining on display for the world to see for such a long period of time.

“This should be treated as a shameful act,” said Hariz Halilovich, a Bosnian Muslim from Monash University.

The FFA has disagreed and it is unlikely any action will be taken against spectators, especially due to the difficulty of identifying those responsible.

Many have defended the actions of the protesters, saying it was simply a group of people exercising their right to freedom of speech and peaceful protest with support coming from outside the Serbian community.

“I didn’t take offence to it… it didn’t affect play,” said one Socceroos supporter after the match.

“I can’t see the difference between that and a ‘Free Tibet’ banner out in the city.”

Whatever the future of football in Australia, it’s clear that there is a willingness and potential to make it a spectacle worthy of matching some of our European counterparts.

This may mean celebrating its successes rather than searching for its mistakes, and embracing its culture, however foreign it may seem – flares and all.