“Borderlanders: Finding Their Voice” is a festival of arts by and about the peacemakers of Sejny, a city in northeastern Poland, and its surrounding region. From April 9 to 20, American audiences will be able to view for the first time a magnificent collection of theater, films, literary events and dialogues that document an experiment in building a multicultural community through the arts underway there since 1990, in which the Borderland Foundation has promoted multicultural education and understanding locally between peoples of different religions, ethnicities, and nationalities.
The festival will include “Sejny Chronicles,” a theater performance at La MaMa E.T.C. (April 10-20), “Films About the Borderlands” at Millennium Film Workshop, Inc. (April 9, 16 and 17), “Cafe Europa,” an evening of arts and letters at Bowery Poetry Club (April 14) and a Conversation with Krzysztof Czyzewski, Founder and President of the Borderland Foundation, at the New School for Social Research (April 16). Detailed info on all events is available at www.PolishCulture-NYC.org.
The town of Sejny (pronounced ” SAY-knee”) bestrides the borders of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus and before World War II was home to a mixed population of Poles, Lithuanians, Jews, Belarusians, Roma, and Russian “Old-believers” (expelled from Czarist Russia). Its Jews, dominant at the beginning of the 20th century, were deported and murdered by the German Nazis in 1941. Despite the oft-embattled town’s history of conquest and ethnic strife, it has, through the ages, been a scene of remarkable co-existence of its various cultures. Due to the shifting of borders and resettlement after the war, the Polish population is now the most numerous; however, most of the other cultures persist in Sejny to this day.
The Borderland (Pogranicze) Foundation and its Borderland Center of Arts, Cultures and Nations, led by Krzysztof Czyzewski (pronounced ” KSHISH-tawf chi-ZHEF-skee”), are an active force in Sejny, pioneering methods of community cooperation as a laboratory of multiculturalism for the world. Czyzewski was a co-creator of the famed Polish theater troupe Gardzienice who, in 1989, committed his life to modeling a living civil society, feeling “called to action” by the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, and parted ways with many of his theater peers who “went mainstream” when Poland regained its sovereignty. Czyzewski has been constantly proving that culture can be applied to establishing intercultural and inter-religious dialogue when peaceful communication is prevented by politics, war, and current or remembered ethnic conflicts. The Foundation now serves as a model for cross-cultural dialogue in regions of ethnic tension worldwide, having provided programs in places like Bosnia, Armenia, Tajikistan and Indonesia. The Sejny model involves all community members but specifically targets young people. Its mission is to train young people to be community builders; its philosophy is that children need to understand the past in order to shape the future.
The aim of the Borderlanders: Finding a Voice festival is to present the ideas and practices of the Sejny-based Borderland Foundation in building bridges between cultures and ethnicities. Multiple identities, exile, immigration, and the role of the arts in multicultural community work are the themes that relate the festival events to each other.
EVENTS OF “BORDERLANDERS: FINDING THEIR VOICE” FESTIVAL
In “Sejny Chronicles,” the theater piece, a stunning montage of multicultural life–based on oral histories and legends–is spoken, sung and danced around a baked clay model of pre-WWII Sejny. The play will be accompanied by a photography exhibition presenting Sejny as a shtetl in the borderland territory, encompassing many traditions, ethnicities, religions, and customs. (April 10 to 20, La MaMa E.T.C., 74A East Fourth Street, Manhattan, www.lamama.org, 212-475-7710)
In “Films About the Borderlands,” three Programs, each consisting of two-three films and followed by Q&A session, will present a selection of documentary films presenting the ethnic complexity of Central and Eastern European borderlands in history and today. The films include an autobiographical film by Jonas Mekas and a film that searches for the family roots of Andy Warhol. (April 9, 16 and 17, Millennium Film Workshop, Inc., 66 East 4th Street, Manhattan, www.millenniumfilm.org, 212-673-0090.)
In “Cafe Europa,” a group of Central and Eastern European poets and writers, now New Yorkers – Romanians, Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, some of them Jewish – will gather for an evening of readings, reminiscences, and reflections on what it means to be a “borderlander” in today’s world. (April 14, The Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery, Manhattan, 212-614-0505)
The performance events in “Borderlanders: Finding Their Voice” are being presented in the Lower East Side as tribute to the multicultural heritage of a district that was home to many Eastern European immigrants in the early 20th century.
The “Borderlanders: Finding Their Voice” festival is being presented by the Polish Cultural Institute in New York in association with La MaMa E.T.C., Bowery Poetry Club, Millenium Film Workshop Inc., and the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at The New School for Social Research. Complete information is online at: www.PolishCulture-NYC.org.
ABOUT THE BORDERLAND FOUNDATION
The Borderland Foundation (Pogranicze) was founded in 1990 by Krzysztof Czyzewski, Malgorzata Sporek-Czyzewska, Bozena and Wojciech Szroeder in Sejny in northeast Poland near the border with Lithuania and Belarus, along with its Borderland Center of Arts, Cultures, and Nations. The Foundation is an NGO with a mission to research, revive, and nurture the cultural diversity of the Eastern borderlands of Poland that was nearly destroyed by two world wars. It promotes multi-cultural education and understanding locally between peoples of different religions, ethnicities, and nationalities. More recently – in response to global threats arising from the rebirth of old ethnic and religious conflicts and growing hostility to the “Other” – it serves as a model for cross-cultural dialogue in regions of ethnic tension worldwide.
In 1989, when communism in Poland collapsed, Czyzewski committed himself to creating a model of a living civil society, feeling “called to action” by the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and parting ways with his experimental theater past. The Sejny model involves the whole community but especially young people, as its mission is to educate them to be community builders, in the belief that they first need to understand the past in order to shape the future.
For the benefit of both scholars and local youth, the Borderland Center – located in a former Hebrew school, yeshiva, and synagogue – includes a documentation and research facility with a collection of 4,500 films on the ethnicities of Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, as well as a museum, galleries, and studios for film, photography, music and other arts and crafts. There are lively hands-on workshops for young people, such as Musicians Raft on klezmer music and Jewish traditions led by Michael Alpert and other New York artists, and of course, “The Sejny Chronicles.”
Czyzewski has been constantly proving that culture can be applied to establishing dialogue when peaceful communication is prevented by politics, war, or ethnic and religious conflicts – current or remembered ones. Stefan Wagstyl wrote in The Financial Times, “In just over a decade Mr. Czyzewski has won an international reputation, helping to set up about a dozen similar centres as far afield as Mostar in Bosnia, Uzhgorod in Ukraine and Arad in Romania.”
The New York Times (Ian Fisher) wrote, “After spending years under Communism as an underground theater director and performer with an interest in Poland’s cultural traditions – , [Czyzewski] went through a personal crisis after 1989: Suddenly there was no Communist state to oppose.’Overnight, the underground disappeared,’ he said.’Overnight, alternative disappeared. Alternative to what? Suddenly you had to take some responsibility.'”