In the spring of 2017, I could not locate my laugh. I was holding out hope that Trump’s campaign had been some kind of enormous, awful prank. A small part of me was waiting for him to admit that he’d gone too far with some overgrown PR stunt and resign. Pence was and remains terrifying, but at least he was plotting to undermine constitutional freedoms without tweeting nuclear bomb threats.
Then I saw a report from Serbia, on one Ljubiša Preletačević Beli and his bluntly satirical campaign for the presidency. Beli was performed by a young man named Luka Maksimović from a town outside of Belgrade called Mladenovac. Intrigued, I looked up Beli’s Twitter profile. Right at the top was a screen grab with a BBC watermark in the corner and the caption, “I am lying to my people and they’re taking it quite well.”
I didn’t just laugh; I guffawed. It shook my whole torso, engaging my pelvic floor and possibly even my toes. I felt, once again, the wonderful coping mechanism humor can be. Here, finally, was an actual joke, and one I found funny.
Aleksandar Vučić, former prime minister of Serbia, won the presidential election with over 54 percent of the vote, but Beli took almost 10 percent. I wanted to know more, so I began to arrange an introduction.
While the main objects of Beli’s satire were politicians of the corrupt and windbagish type, he was also a walking metaphor for the dangerous charisma of political players.
Ljubiša Preletačević Beli’s name is a joke. Like many Serbian jokes it contains at least one—and in this case multiple—plays on words.
Beli (a conjugation of beo, an adjective that means white) references the practice of voting for, basically, no-one-in-particular-all-these-candidates-suck. This is done by showing up and submitting a blank (white) ballot, writing in a joke name, drawing a silly face or, in the 2017 presidential election, voting for Beli. It bears mentioning that Beli intended to work seriously towards real improvements if elected and members of his party actually did so—though to little avail—at the local level. Preletačević combines a common Serbian surname ending of -vić with the word describing the practice of a politician “flying over” to the party with the most power at a given time. An ideologically bankrupt opportunist.
The name of Beli’s sidekick during that election, Prilepak, translates loosely to barnacle. Like many politicians (and managers, for that matter), barnacles are filter feeders that mostly live in symbiosis with other organisms. Some, however, are parasites.
While the main objects of Beli’s satire were politicians of the corrupt and windbagish type—and god knows we have plenty of those here in the states, from Joe Arpaio to the recently defeated Don Blankenship—he was also a walking metaphor for the dangerous charisma of political players; how their success is tied to their ability to draw our attention by any means necessary. Celebrity politicians aren’t new (cf. Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Ventura) but with Cynthia Nixon entering the race for Governor of New York so shortly after Trump's ascent, perhaps we're finally beginning to establish space for a wider variety of choices. To allow charisma only its worth and find lasting value within our representatives, one has to look beyond the marketing.
My grandmother—the Serbo-American one who would call me a “nooooodie girl” when referencing my day-job in pornography, and my main role model—gave me little art lessons when I was a child. She also gave me bits of historical mythology. No sources were cited, and much emphasis was placed on the heartiness of the Serbs and their ability to drop everything else but survival when need be.
“This empire came, and our ancestors stood their ground and fought. That empire came, and our ancestors ran to the mountains to regroup—and then fought. Some other empire came, and…” You get the idea: flexibility, resourcefulness and knowing when you’re outgunned were presented as important life skills—and as part of my DNA.
I grew up being told that I could always find a way because of my heritage. There was no obstacle a Serb couldn’t find a way through, over, under or around, provided they could just hang on for long enough. My strongest memories of these talks with my grandmother nestle snugly beside the still-vivid 1990s news reports showing NATO bombs screaming through the sky above Belgrade.
I am both fascinated by and wary of national myths. Hence my need to know more about Beli.
Belgrade, December 2017: I meet Beli's/Luka’s brother, who becomes my contact in Beli’s camp. He says he’ll get me the access I need, and the commissioning of the piece will get me permission from the Ministry of Culture to perform journalism inside the Republic of Serbia. He also tells me that Beli is considering a rebrand, and that the character is running in the Belgrade city parliament elections slated for spring of 2018.
As I’m leaving town, I’m told that Beli has split from the team he’d been working with in Mladenovac during his run for president. At the airport I slowly pick my way through social-media feeds and websites, using a dictionary and Google Translate. A release of standard press statements professes an amicable split and gives precisely no details.
Two months later, I return for the premiere of my first major non-porn film—a sci-fi movie called Ederlezi Rising, shot here in 2015. It’s set to screen to a sold-out theater that I’m told holds 4,000 people. Lazar, the film’s director, jokes that my visits here are like The Truman Show. People tend to be on their best behavior with me, and thanks to the interviews and essays that form the bulk of my career, it’s easy to find out what will impress me and what will enter my heart.
Once I’m on the ground someone warns me of rumors that Beli’s whole spectacle was engineered by the current government as a distraction—a way to funnel votes away from oppositional candidates who qualify as real threats, or bread and circuses for the digital era.
Meanwhile, I process news from the U.S. that the proposed bills FOSTA and SESTA, making their way through the House and Senate, are of concern to sex workers, including pornographers like me. The language of the bills is left open enough to enable prosecution not only of actual sex traffickers but also consensual sex workers—especially those who own their own means of distribution. The language of the bills opens up new possibilities of limiting the free expression of any citizen.
As these bills are making their way into law, online platforms are already shutting down or beginning to treat sex workers differently from other users.
My friend Lazara picks me up on her way to the Belgrade Women’s March. I gravitate toward a fellow marcher holding a red umbrella—a symbol of sex workers’ rights. We walk past the building we’re nearly sure Srbijanka Turajlić lives in, and we see a Srbijanka-shaped shadow in the window. Srbijanka, a still-living activist and the subject of her daughter Mila Turajlić’s documentary The Other Side of Everything, was a key figure in the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević, the much mythologized president of Serbia and then of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the most recent two rounds of Balkan conflict. (Milošević defended himself in his trial for war crimes at the Hague but died before the trial finished.)
Srbijanka is an extremely rare and strong name. Srbija is how the Serbs spell Serbia, and the suffix -ka is frequently used to indicate female gender.
I head to a church, the Temple of Saint Sava. The icons soothe me. I walk in circles in the crypt. I cry as I touch my lips to the icon of Jesus, thinking, You confuse me. I stop at one of the women under Saint Petka, kiss the representation of her feet, and feel a balance. I walk until I feel centered within myself again. The tears dry on my face. The calm sticks.
When you overthrow a dictator, it’s important to set up a good system for after that person. Overthrowing is not enough. And we really learned it after Milošević.
I return to Brooklyn. FOSTA-SESTA, now a single hyphenate, passes the Senate. A few days later, Michigan announces it will end the free bottled water program for the residents of Flint, Michigan, where lead pipes, polluted water and governmental negligence and corruption created a tragedy that will resonate for decades to come. And then I learn that a near-identical problem has been plaguing Mladenovac.
I still haven’t landed an interview with Beli, and I wrack my brain for ways to corral things into some narrative without him. Finally, just as I’m about to begin apologizing profusely to my commissioning editor, it occurs to me to reach out to the other half of the group—the more serious, less satirical end of the movement, the one that Beli split from around the New Year and that has continued its activity under the name Samo Jako.
Branislav Sjeran, a current member of Mladenovac’s local parliament and part of Samo Jako, says the group’s dominant areas of concern include corruption and misuse of public funds in the government, as well as widespread disillusionment, apathy and belief in conspiracy theories or fake news among the general public. I recognize these problems in my own country of origin, and I think about how people point out similar issues in every country I visit. Branislav tells me that while the group did manage to raise significant awareness of poor water quality in Mladenovac, the government’s regular spot-checks have ceased and replacement of the in-ground pipes that contain harmful chemicals remains a work in progress. Even with the pipes replaced, a purification plant will still need to be built to clean the water. Still, knowing the water contains dangerous substances at least allows those who can afford to do so to choose bottled water instead.
If the themes feel familiar, it’s because they are.
Branislav says that while it’s much more difficult to attract attention or new members without a face, they have no plans to try to create a new figurehead. Beli happened organically, and it would be a mistake to try to engineer a second version. He mentions people in other towns contacting the Samo Jako group for advice or examples of systems they can apply to their own communities. He’s noticed a shift—at least in Serbia—from political parties to movements, by which he means smaller and more localized.
I circle back to the initial catalyst for this story—my despair under the Trump administration, my hope that his campaign had been just another publicity stunt, and the relief I found in Beli’s comedy. He points out that joking too much removes the sting of whatever political or social ill is being lampooned. It’s a warning to resist being distracted by that alleviation—and continue looking underneath.
Sex workers regroup and begin to organize. The U.S. Women’s March, up until this point largely avoiding the discussion, tweets in direct support of sex workers’ rights and begins amplifying key voices of the opposition to FOSTA-SESTA. In Flint, people discuss measures the community can explore to protect and care for itself.
Branislav has one more warning for me before we end the call. “When you overthrow a dictator, or a bad ruler of any kind, it’s important to set up a good system for after that person,” he says. “Overthrowing is not enough. And we really learned it after Milošević.”
When I remember that Milošević’s first name, Slobodan, means “free,” I laugh.
Then I begin to do the work.