Prishtina Insight meets one part of comedy trio Stupcat, who have spent the last 17 years poking fun at Kosovo’s socio political nuances.
“Why you are so tense, Mensur?” the waiter asks.
In a second, Mensur Safciu moves from the retelling of a tragic story to teasing the Serbian waiter. “I am telling the guys about how you beat us during the ‘90s,” he retorts in fluent Serbian. The whole table breaks out into fits of laughter, including the man in his fifties serving raki in a restaurant just a few kilometers from the town of Shterpce – a town in southern Kosovo inhabited predominantly by Serbs.
Safciu, one of the three most well known satirists in post-war Kosovo collectively known as ‘Stupcat,’ is in fact telling the story of the last moments of the life of his former friend and colleague, actress Adriana Abdullahu, who was killed by Serbian forces in Prishtina on March 22, 1999.
Exactly two decades later, with tears in his eyes, the 48-year-old recalls the screams of Abdullahu and the others inside the pub that Safciu owned in the Santea neighborhood of Prishtina, when the Kalashnikovs finally ceased firing.
The war was beginning to take another direction at that time, and curfews had become strictly and randomly enforced by armed Serbian police across Kosovo, even in the capital. It was just two days later that NATO launched the 78-day bombing campaign that brought Milosevic’s regime to an end.
Equipped with military experience from his time as a conscript of the Yugoslav army during the ‘90s, Safciu drew his fingers together and quickly touched his abdomen and chest, scanning to see if he had been hit. Untouched by the gunfire, he discovered that only the upper part of his shirt had been caught by the bullets; a shirt he continues to keep as a relic of that dreadful night.
But the anguish did not stop there.
“I was just waiting for [the Serbian police] to break through the main door of the bar and execute us,” Safciu remembers. Minutes later, in total shock, the actor managed to get out of the pub, crawl underneath one of the parked cars and phone a friend for help. That night he lost his friend, but the sorrow of not returning to see the scene of the tragedy continues to haunt his soul, twenty years later.
These bitter memories of the tragedy of losing a friend have affected his life, philosophy and artistic work. Safciu was involved in theater plays after the war and is currently also testing himself in the film industry abroad. However he is best known for his role in Stupcat, whose work has also been influenced by the bloodshed of the ‘90s and Safciu’s personal experiences.
Stupcat was born in 2002 with 5 members, but reduced to the trio of Safciu, Vedat Bajrami and Osman Azemi in 2004 – a union that has now stood for 15 years. “The biggest achievement for me is to be together with my two friends for all these years, because we went through many crises, difficulties, compliments, earthquakes and tsunamis,” Safciu says, before adding a jibe at Kosovo’s politicians. “Isn’t it an achievement to be together in art for 17 years? We cannot see a coalition in Kosovo that is able to fulfill the full 4 year mandate, though they pledge to serve the people.”
The humor of Stupcat has often been most strongly identified with mocking both the political and social issues in post-war Kosovo. During the time of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, Stupcat ridiculed what it described as a “fake effort” to improve relations and bring peace between Albanians and Serbs, mocking advertisements promoting reconciliation and cohabitation.
“I fuck all your standards’ mother!” the Albanian character in the sketch, Sahit Plisi, erupts at its denouement, voicing his discontent at being paid less than his Serbian neighbor, Zhivko, a role played by Safciu.
‘Standards before status’ was a mantra often used by the international community, drilling home the point that Kosovo could not become independent before reaching certain ‘standards.’ High on the list of priorities was the protection of minority rights, particularly of the Serbian community. This retaliatory phrase, ‘Ti qifsha standartet e nanes,’ soon entered the vocabulary of Kosovo Albanians.
For Safciu, the way reconciliation was enforced by the international community and the interim Kosovo institutions became a farce in itself. “Reconciliation is a formal process,” he says. “It has always been invented by the powerful. In the past it was old men with moustaches. Now it’s the states who always say: ‘Shake hands with each other, we are tired of you.’”
Safciu believes that these ‘old men with moustaches’ today, the conglomerate of powerful states, should not put pressure on Kosovo, but instead aim for something else. “First of all the Serbs should reconcile with themselves for their deeds in Kosovo, before they reconcile with us.”
Reconciliation is not the only area in which Safciu feels Kosovo must take ownership of its own sociopolitical processes. “We should feel the issues we support, and not do stuff only because internationals are saying so or paying for it,” he insists. “Reconciliation, women’s rights, the rights of homosexuals or other human beings are our issues, and we should deal with them for our sake, not for others.”
Indeed, Safciu sees this fight as an existential part of what Kosovo must be. “The day I see my nation being like Milosevic was for us, I will leave this country… In fact, no, I will fight [that type of regime],” he says. “I would never like to see the people of my nation victimizing others. For me the concept of freedom is when I can offer another freedom.”
Stupcat’s jokes didn’t just take aim at international actors after the Kosovo war. In a number of sketches, the comedy trio also ridiculed leading commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, especially those who used their legacy as liberators to become wealthy.
The group were heavily criticized for this, and in 2016 received death threats over a sketch depicting wartime and the KLA. The sketch was described by the KLA veterans organization as a “desecration of KLA values.”
But Safciu insists that with their satire of certain KLA individuals, Stupcat were defending the silent majority. “We guarded the real KLA fighters with those sketches,” he says. “Those who have deviated from the ideal – freedom – cannot blame us for the humor.”
Stupcat continued devising sketches on sensitive issues pertaining to the KLA and those who misused its legacy, with Safciu later playing a father trying to get his young son onto the list of veterans at the verification commission. By 2017, more than 60,000 people had applied for the status of veteran, a number which is highly disputed. An investigation is currently ongoing over the many people believed to falsely receive pensions as former KLA fighters, damaging the Kosovo budget by millions of euros.
For Safciu, the subject of corruption and rich politicians has been used in their humor to highlight the high rate of poverty amongst Kosovo’s population, which surpasses 20 per cent, while eight percent of the population live in extreme poverty. “Kosovo is small, like a small fart, and I don’t see it as fair that people should live in poverty,” he says.
According to Safciu’s outlook, this criticism of the political classes has widened the gap between him and the politicians in power. In an era when Kosovo president Hashim Thaci has awarded 700 people with medals for their contributions, Safciu has an absolute aversion towards the idea of the state decorating him for his work. “I would never ever accept a medal,” he says. “I have a medal that no president can give to me — the people’s medal... I don’t need medals and decorations as I am an artist. The moment I accept a medal, I am gone.”
Nonetheless, while the humor of Stupcat is widely admired in Kosovo, it has also received criticism over the angles and methods in which they have satirized other social groups. In the view of George Orwell, the renowned British writer, the aim of the joke is not to degrade the human being but to remind him that he is already degraded.
Which side of this line Stupcat fall on is a subject that is often raised when Safciu is playing his famous role of ‘Aga Shneqe,’ (Uncle Shneqe) the husband of ‘Tetja Gjyli’ (Aunt Gjyli), who is subjected to constant psychological and physical attacks. Moreover, Tetja Gjyli is a stereotypical representation of a Kosovar housewife who only cooks, goes to traditional weddings and is often shown as being ignorant.
Safciu refutes the idea that the physical attacks on Tetja Gjyli could legitimize violence towards women in Kosovo or that her representation entrenches inequality. He defends Stupcat’s work and believes that they have provoked a debate by exhibiting the violence and inequality of women in Kosovo.
“Aga Shneqe is a character and model of how women should not be treated,” he says. “In my laboratory, I wanted to attack something bad, and to bring to the surface a bad phenomenon, but Albanians, instead of irritation, died laughing at our humor. Sometimes we need to make the phenomenon more grotesque, to exaggerate the problems a bit- the slapping and other abuses in our humor were there to tell the people who they are, and how they should not be.”
According to Safciu, his personal intention for Stupcat were always to protect the marginalized and weaker elements of society. “Perhaps driven by our past, I always stand by the weak. I like to be the sheriff who supports the weak. I think in this life, I have enough reasons to be with the weak.”
Safciu also has a strong belief in comedy’s advantages as a vehicle for this. “Laughing is a gift that only human beings can execute,” he says. “As far as I know, humor is not for training your abdominal muscles. It is rehabilitation for a society.”