‘Nemanjici’: the Show that United Serbia

A recent survey by IPSOS showed that Serbia is the world’s most divided society among 27 countries around the world that were included in the study. Some 93 per cent of Serbians agree that Serbia is fairly or very divided, compared to “only” 84 per cent of Americans or 75 per cent of the French.

Given the country’s relative ethnic homogeneity and lack of immigration, most of the blame, according to the respondents, lay with politics, where mudslinging is the norm.

No wonder, then, that for the past 12 weeks, viewers in Serbia sat down in their living rooms to escape the daily political squabbles and watch a show about the most heavily mythologised period in their nation’s history

Produced by Serbia’s state broadcaster, RTS, and set at the turn of 13th century, the first season of Nemanjici follows Stefan Nemanja, the ruler of Raska, a precursor to modern Serbia, and his sons Stefan, Vukan and Rastko, as they battle more powerful neighbours and fight each other.

The story, known at least in broad strokes by almost every local schoolchild, is that saintly Stefan Nemanja gave up power to his middle son, Stefan, but his elder son, Vukan, then mounted a challenge and temporarily overthrew him – to the country’s detriment.

The chaos was stopped by the youngest of the three, Rastko, later to become St Sava, who made his brothers make peace over their father’s dead body in Studenica monastery. This truce led to Stefan taking power and finally receiving the royal crown from the Pope in 1217.

Coming on the back of the global success of “Game of Thrones” and “Senke nad Balkanom” [Shadows over the Balkans], a TV show broadcast on RTS set in a fictional noir version of pre-WWII Belgrade, Nemanjici was hyped as a big-budget hit show as well as the first depiction of this key slice of Serbian history on screen.

Given that the period and these historic figures hold a sacred place in the Serbian psyche, as founders of the nation, no stops were pulled; it cost about 2.9 million euros for a 13-episode run.

In the run-up to the pilot, which was broadcast on New Year’s Eve, viewers were promised the sight of heroes clad in beautiful medieval costumes, strolling around long-destroyed castles and fighting their opponents in realistic, impressive battle scenes.

Stars of the contemporary Serbian screen and stage were signed up to play the main characters, and the screenplay, chosen in an anonymous completion, was written by the industry veteran, Goran Mihic.

Besides the sumptuous production, the story was meant to work as a parable of the importance of unity, an ideal that has often eluded Serbian society, so much so that it is included in the unofficial national motto “Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava” [Only unity can save the Serbs].

Finally, of course, the weekly escape to the golden age of saintly kings was to also serve as a boost to national pride and morale, and serve as a reminder that, at one point at least, Serbia was governed by wise and noble rulers.

Episode by episode, however, Nemanjici has miserably failed to live up to these lofty expectations.

While beautifully dressed and filmed, the actors constantly overact the often nonsensical script, channelling the greatest campy excesses of the 1960s Hollywood sword-and-sandal-movies. A now-infamous scene shows a lecherous fictional mentor advising chaste Rastko Nemanjic to ‘hump something’, while a cliff-hanger was resolved by a character saying that she needed to pee.

There are many instances of medieval princes talking like regulars in a Belgrade café preparing to go out, and medieval rulers treating politics as if they are playing a game of Risk.

Beside changing the historical sequence of events for dramatic purposes, the show also took curious turns in adding fictional characters, one result of which was that the protagonist, Stefan the First-Crowned, was written as having an incestuous affair with his foster-sister, a romance that forms one of the main arcs of the first season.

Instead of a blockbuster, Serbs have been treated to something barely watchable, which derives most of its entertainment value from its unintentional comedic gems. Although it was sent back to the cutting room when its New Year’s Eve pilot was panned by historians, critics and the audience, throughout its 13 episodes, the last of which will air on May 6, the show is still firmly in the “so-bad-it’s-good” territory. With an IMDB rating of 3.7 at the time of writing, it is probably the biggest dud in the history of Serbian entertainment.

In spite of the overwhelming misgivings felt about it, the show has, however, succeeded in one of its stated goals: it united Serbia.

Viewers – at one point as many as 1.96 million of them – tuned in for 12 Sunday nights to indulge in outrage and schadenfreude.

Traditionalists, who see the show as sullying Serbian history, come together with liberals, who see it as tacky propaganda, to dissect each and every scene and laugh at its errors. For one hour on Sundays, usually grumpy Serbian twitter blooms with brilliant jokes and memes, making hate-watching of Nemanjici a social, fun experience.

The way Nemanjici has united Serbia tells you a lot about how to achieve national unity in the 21st century.

Saintly pronouncements about the value of mutual respect can only get you so far. Anger, ideally mixed with the ability to blame someone, and maybe a tinge of black humour, gets you there much quicker. As ever, it is the common enemy that is the best source of social cohesion.

While this quirk of the human psyche was often used in Serbia – and around the world – to rally the people to hate other nations or minorities, in this case it can be used for good.

It is about time Serbs of all stripes and political convictions rallied against the inability of our institutions to admit their own mistakes, let alone address them. Indeed, despite the torrent of outrage and harsh criticism, according to the latest news, it seems that Nemanjici will get another season, with the same creative team at the helm.

This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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