Hypocrisy vs history debate follows death of former Yugoslav actress Mira Furlan

Profile photo of Mira Furlan's official Twitter profile, also used in a tweet announcing her death. Fair use.

Actress Mira Furlan died at her Los Angeles home on January 20 after a long struggle with the West Nile Virus. Her death incited a soul-searching debate across her native region of former Yugoslavia, about parts of her life story which are not common knowledge among her fans in the USA nor world over, who recall her roles in cult sci-fi works.

Mira Furlan presented herself on her website as a “noted former Yugoslavian actress, currently best known to the western world for her portrayal of the Minbari Ambassador “Delenn” on the award-winning series Babylon 5.”

The Wikipedia article about her claims she was a Croatian actress of mixed Croatian, Jewish and Slovenian heritage, born in Zagreb. For much of Furlan's life, these two labels—Yugoslavian and Croatian—were not mutually exclusive: one could have been both.

Born in 1955, by the early 1980s she had become one of the leading movie and TV stars in Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, with roles in Academy award-nominated “When Father Was Away on Business” (made in Bosnia in 1985), and the popular anti-patriarchal “The Beauty of Vice” (made in Montenegro in 1986), as well as several evergreen TV drama series like “Velo Misto” and “Smogovci.”

trailer for the tragicomedy “The Beauty of Vice” re-released in homage to Furlan several days after her death gives a glimpse of how most people who had the privilege of following her career at the time remember her—bursting with natural beauty and acting talent.

Both through her acting roles and as a public figure she often challenged the establishment and served as an early voice for second-wave feminism.

But as the union called Yugoslavia started to unravel, and nationalist chauvinists openly took hold of power in successor states, starting a series of wars, Furlan was declared a traitor by the media in her native Croatia.

The main ‘charges’ of the ensuing smear campaign against Furlan were that besides working at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, she also starred in a theatre production in Belgrade, and that the love of her life, and live-in partner since 1986 and later husband, film director Goran Gajić, was an ethnic Serb, also born in Zagreb.

Since the 1990s, smear campaigns in the Balkans have not been a mere exchange of opinions. Locally referred to as “media lynchings” they can be precursors to actual lynchings, perpetrated by aggravated “concerned patriotic citizens” poisoned by hate-fueled propaganda, and armed with actual weapons.

In Furlan's case, the campaign started with a character assassination through a news magazine article entitled “The Hard Life of an Easy Woman” by journalist and writer Rene Bakalović. “Easy woman” is a local euphemistic term for a promiscuous woman lacking basic morality or a prostitute. Among various libelous claims, Bakalović's text insinuated that Mira Furlan hated Zagreb because of her Jewish roots.

(This fell in line with the growing anti-semitism promoted by resurgent extreme right-wing nationalists who considered local Nazi collaborators from the Second World War as the true patriots.)

The smear campaign against Furlan quickly escalated to institutional level. She was fired from her job at the Croatian National Theatre and the Croatian state requisitioned her family's Zagreb apartment. The enormous number of death threats left on her telephone answering machine was the final reason for her decision to leave the state that offered her no protection.

On a November 1991 evening, their remaining friends threw a farewell party for Furlan and Gajić in a Belgrade flat, and they left the following morning for New York. A Nova S article commemorating the event also quoted Furlan who explained how it felt to be ostracized on both sides of the front lines. When asked who from her celebrity acquaintances disappointed her at that time, she said:

Lista bi bila preduga. Malo je tada bilo ljudi koji su stali uz mene… Malo?! Što to govorim? Nije ih bilo. Točka. Jedini ozbiljni članak o “slučaju” napisao je hrabri i jedinstveni Viktor Ivančić. Na tome sam bila i još sam mu uvijek beskrajno i zauvijek zahvalna. Nije bilo javne podrške, ni u Zagrebu ni u Beogradu, gdje sam preko noći postala “drugi”, čiji se “slučaj” više nikoga nije ticao. Ali je u Beogradu bilo nekih ljudi koji su nam prije našeg odlaska u Ameriku velikodušno dali svoje američke kontakte da nam se nađu u stranom svijetu. Među njima bila je i najveća od najvećih, ne samo po glumačkim, nego i po ljudskim kvalitetama: Milena Dravić. U takvim kriznim trenucima shvatite to je dobar čovjek.

The  list would be too long. Very few people stood by me at that time … A few?! What am I saying? There were no reactions. Full stop. The only serious article about the case was written by the brave and unique Viktor Ivančić. For that, I was and still am eternally grateful to him.  There was no public support, neither in Zagreb nor in Belgrade, where I become one of “the others” overnight, someone whose “case” was of no consequence. But in Belgrade there were some people who before going to America generously shared their American contacts who could help us abroad. Among them was the greatest off them all, both as an actor and as a human being: Milena Dravić. In such moments of crisis you realize who is truly a good person.

In the USA, Furlan proceeded with her acting career, including notable roles in the hit TV series Babylon 5 and LOST.

According to the testimony of her friend and colleague Rade Šerbedžija, who also worked in Hollywood at the time, she returned to Croatia in 2002 and played a leading role in Euripide's Medea, produced by Šerbeđija's private theatre company Ulysses to critical acclaim and warm audience reception.

Mira je bila velika i pravedna žena. Bila je levičarka i socijalista. Bila je briljantna glumica i osoba. Svi su je voleli, od publike do drugih glumaca i reditelja – što je i dokazala kada je otišla, pobegla od strašnog rata i uspela da u SAD napravi karijeru.

Mira was a great and just woman. She was a leftist and a socialist. She was a brilliant actress and person. Everybody loved her, the audience, the other actors and directors. She proved it when she left, when she escaped the terrible war and managed to build a new career in the USA.

Even though the “In memoriam” video by the Public Broadcasting Service HRT (Croatian Radio and Television) showing highlights from her  movies and TV series, noted that her last theatre performance was in Rijeka, Croatia, a year before her death, it also quotes Šerbedžija saying that “she never really returned.”

Renowned Croatian film director Rajko Grlić was even more blunt, and in a statement for Nova S TV said that “Mira Furlan experienced a pogrom, and Croatia never apologized.”

Moreover, after the news of Furlan's death spread, the Croatian National Theatre published an official obituary on its website, which glossed over the injustice done to the banished actress:

Odlazak u SAD 1991. godine zbog političkih razloga je bio trenutak prestanka njezinog rada u Hrvatskom narodnom kazalištu, no njezina umjetnička ostavština živi i dalje. Obožavale su je i obožavat će je generacije publike, jer je uz ogroman talent i inteligenciju bila umjetnica koja je svojim beskompromisnim stavovima postala moralna veličina.
Zbogom i hvala ti, Miro.

Her 1991 departure to the USA due to political reasons was the moment of stoppage of her work at the Croatian National Theatre, but her artistic legacy lives on. She was adored and will be adored by generations of audiences, because alongside her enormous talent and intelligence she was an artist who showed moral greatness because of her uncompromising positions.
Farewell and thank you, Mira.

This announcement led to a flurry of social media comments blaming the theatre for shameful lies and hypocrisy and attempting “forgery of history.”

The current manager of the drama department of the Croatian National Theatre, Ivica Buljan, published a personal apology to Furlan in a lengthy Facebook post, which was relayed by influential online media. Besides noting that it's too late to “apologise to the dead,” and paying homage to his former colleague, Buljan wrote:

Mnogi su objavu prokomentirali: HNK pokušao zaboraviti kako je otjerao Miru Furlan. Kao ravnatelj Drame HNK osjećam sram zbog događaja koji su Miru Furlan prisilili da napusti kazalište i Zagreb. Miro, ja te molim oprosti.

Many commented on the [official obituary] announcement as: Croatian National Theatre attempted to forget how they chased out Mira Furlan. As a manager of the drama department of the Croatian National Theatre I feel shame due to the events that forced Mira Furlan to leave the theatre and Zagreb. Mira, please forgive.

The media treatment of the news about her death in Croatia also raised accusations of hypocrisy. In one case, a post-mortem HRT TV show about her even included a statement from one of her initial “media executioners” in which he commented positively on her 2002 performance in Zagreb.

Croatian journalist Danka Derifaj responded via a Facebook post:

Koliko gadljivo, patološki i zastrašujuće. Rene Bakalović, autor teksta pod naslovom Težak život lake žene u kojem je čerečio Miru Furlan početkom devesetih u Globusu, je kao “školski kolega” govorio u prilogu HRT-a povodom njezine smrti.

How sickening, pathological and downright scary. Rene Bakalović, the author of the text entitled “The Hard Life of an Easy Woman” which he used to butcher Mira Furlan at the beginning of the nineties in Globus magazine, has now been invited to talk in a news segment about her death on the HRT (PBS Croatian Radio Television) as “her schoolmate.”

Very little from these conversations have been aired outside of the region of former Yugoslavia. Remembrances of Mira Furlan by fans and colleagues in the US and the world over have been focused on her accomplishments on the international stage. The “prehistory” of regional stardom has been but briefly mentioned, and the struggle against nationalism has largely been absent from their discourse, including the obituaries in the international media.

This absence of awareness in the West might reflect Furlan's PR attitude, which was based on her complex personality, strong and fragile at the same time. It seems she refused to play both the part of complaining victim and of a show-off regarding her fame and celebrity status in her “old country” when talking to US media, unless she was specifically asked. As a survivor, she focused on her new life and career, and returning as part of public discourse in the Balkans after she had “made it” abroad, by participating in visiting projects and as a columnist for Feral Tribune and the Nova S website.

Back on the world stage, the Twitter profile of American writer J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, became one of the focal points of the fandom that shared the feeling of loss and admiration for Furlan. In that vein, he shared a video with a parting scene from the series in which Furlan's character Satai Delenn explains why in her alien culture there's no word for goodbye.

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