Big Brother, a guerilla performance, a new heart…or shaming Serbia into giving

Last Monday, my FB account was overwhelmed by a shared YouTube video of Sergej Trifunovic’s (a well-known and somewhat controversial Serbian actor) speech that he gave on VIP Big Brother.  

Sergej, who was invited to appear as a guest in the studio during the ongoing BB show used his interview time for something that was pretty much a guerilla performance. Instead of talking about BB and its celebrity contestants, he used his time to scold the whole of Serbia for spending money on SMSes for voting on BB and asked that instead people donate money for a new heart for little Tijana Ognjanovic…and boy, was he rough!!!

For those that don’t understand the language, he said (more or less):

“A couple of months ago, a young girl died because we didn’t collect money for her operation…a year ago, this state gave one million USD for Miladin Kovacevic. Now we have small Tijana…a million USD is needed for a new heart and the transplant surgery that can be done only in USA. So, all of you that spend your money to throw someone off of BB, do something good…  a month ago Croats have collected a million euro for operation of a little girl…. I guess that you are all big Serbs and that your keyboards are on Cyrillic, so prove that you are bigger Serbs than Croats are… This is the bank account… give money for Tijana. I think this is much more useful than to watch who **** whose ***… And, you don’t have to spend money to get me off of BB, I am leaving on my own.”

And then he left, leaving a pretty stunned hostess.

That happened on Sunday. On Monday, around 450,000 USD was on Tijana’s account… and people continued to give. Moreover, prompted by a really touching letter and reaction from Sarajevo’s actor Fedja Stukan, the whole region joined in giving.

Now, this whole event is interesting from several points of view: the lottery of giving for health emergencies, the power of social networks, the wave of people who gave because of Sergej’s scolding and wave of people who gave touched by Fedja’s letter. This event is also a great opportunity to celebrate solidarity and compassion throughout the region!

But Sergej’s speech and Serbia’s reaction to it intrigued me.  

It intrigued me because, while Sergej was championing Tijana’s cause, he was not nice in his plea. Actually his plea wasn’t really the plea, it was scolding and challenging people. Yet, so many people reacted that after four days, Tijana had enough money for operation. Not only that, but FB was full of the people who said: don’t just like and share, prove that you paid money for Tijana by publishing the confirmation from the bank.

So, I’ve tried to understand why this worked.

And what I’m thinking is this: he challenged the people of Serbia on several levels. He challenged those who are spending money on voting for BB instead of using this money for something useful. He challenged ‘national pride’ by mentioning Croats and their success in collecting money. He challenged the state by mentioning money given for releasing someone from well-deserved punishment, but not finding money to save their citizen’s lives. He challenged our apathy, false patriotism, lack of compassion, and acceptance of status quo.  

Also important, he was honest: It was obvious that he was nervous, that this wasn’t really a prepared speech, that this was his cause – not something that he was just asked to do. His feelings, his bitterness were real.

He said to all of us: shame on you! And Serbia was shamed into giving.

I don’t know exactly which of these challenges had the most impact on people. Or was it his honesty? I wish I knew – it would be an interesting study of our society. But I also have ambivalent feelings about the whole event.

On one hand, I don’t like the fact that the very same people who didn’t give money for Tijana while being asked nicely for several months reacted only when bitterly and angrily challenged. There is no doubt that life in Serbia has been difficult – well, for over two decades. Unfortunately it often seems to me that – instead of increasing our compassion for other people – tough times dulled our empathy and solidarity. So I am a bit defeated by the fact that Serbia needed to be ashamed into giving.

On the other hand, I feel good that the whole event proved that we still can be shamed, moved from  apathy, show solidarity, be people, be human, and react to the honesty and decency of one person.

And I wonder if there is a lesson in this for all of us who work on philanthropy and giving in Serbia. And if yes, what is it exactly?

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Aleksandra Vesic