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Rade Serbedzija.jpg. Photo: Geyrhalter Film
Rade Serbedzija. Photo: Geyrhalter Film

He played Hamlet, Don Juan and Richard III. He was one of the most popular theatre and film actors in former Yugoslavia. In 1990, as Yugoslavia's disintegration became an ever more likely possibility, Rade Serbedzija, a Serb from Croatia, left Zagreb for Belgrade. He later explained he did it for love – he had fallen in love with a young director from Belgrade, Lenka Udovicki.

He was not applauded for it. In the eyes of nationalist Croats, going to the "other side" amounted to treason. When he returned briefly to Zagreb to work on a film set in 1993, one of the  stuntman even threatened to kill him. Neither was he welcome in Belgrade. As an opponent to Serbian nationalism, he was seen as an enemy, there too. At a bar one day in 1992, he was threatened with a pistol. He narrowly escaped being shot.

Serbedzija says he was a target because he didn't want to take sides – he was against all of the leaders in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia. He wrote anti-nationalist songs and was trying to "stop the war."

"I was not alone; there were a lot of people who didn't want to take sides in this war. And they were actually enemies … A lot of people who lost some of their relatives, children, parents, their houses, were in such a terrible situation that they didn't have time to understand people who didn't want to take sides. For them, they were also guilty ... And then you have to leave your country."

And so Serbedzija left. First to Ljubljana, Slovenia, where he was doing theatre, and then, at the invitation of a colleague, to London. While famous in former Yugoslavia, in London he was an unknown actor from the Balkans who spoke broken English. Lenka, his wife, was the bread-winner. She was working at the Bolivian embassy, while trying to build her theatre production career. Serbedzija spent a lot of time at home, playing guitar or writing songs. He recalls:

"It was difficult. It was terrible. I was ready to be a taxi driver."

But then, a Macedonian director, Milcho Manchevski, approached him to play in his movie "Before The Rain." Serbedzija played the main character, a disillusioned war photographer living in London. When he returns to his native Macedonia, he finds an ethnically divided country. The film won international fame (and an Oscar nomination). Suddenly, Serbedzija started getting offers from Hollywood. Over the years, he acted along Tom Cruise, Benicio Del Toro and Angelina Jolie. He played in numerous films, including as Ivan Tretiak in "The Saint", as Milich in "Eyes Wide Shut", Dr Nekhorvich in "Mission: Impossible II", as "Boris the Blade" in "Snatch", Inspector Vigot in "The Quiet American" and Gregorovitch in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."

When in 2000, after president Tudjman's death, Croatians elected a pro-Western government, Serbedzija got an offer to organise a theatre festival on the Brijuni islands and accepted. He called it "Ulysses".

"I felt like Ulysses, who is coming back home after – exactly – 12 years."

The festival takes now place every summer. And today, he's living with Lenka in Rijeka. At Rijeka University, he teaches acting and directing. In 2012 he played a Serbian soldier in "In The Land of Blood and Honey," a film about the war in Bosnia and Angelina Jolie's debut as film director.

"Croatia in 1991, or the whole of the former Yugoslavia in 1991, it was hell! In all of these countries, there were a lot of people guilty of war and a lot of innocent people who were hurt. Those were the times when they hated each other. Then, there were times when they were trying to open doors to each other, but very slowly and carefully.

Then suddenly, you know what? They open this door even more and they will start to love each other again. Now they're still not loving each other, I know this. But things are much, much, much better, I can feel it. Walking again through these streets which were for days and years forbidden for me, going to these restaurants again, meeting people. People are hugging me – I'm again a popular actor here …"

Serbedzija belongs to the most famous of an estimated 80,000 Croatian Serbs who returned to live in Croatia again.

March 2013

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