Bad Words: REF Supports a Romani-language Children’s Program in Serbia

Children have been in for a surprise in Serbia, for every Saturday since August, just before noon, Bad Words (Ružne reči) airs across the country on Radio Television Serbia. For 15 delicious minutes, children can join in exploring a tantalizing vision. And for what may be the first time for a national channel, Romanes shares the stage with Serbian in this bilingual children’s show. 

With a cast of Roma and non-Roma actors, some recruited from some of Belgrade’s Roma neighborhoods and others from more integrated and prosperous areas, Bad Words explores the words that are the reality of school yard, the classroom and even the street. But rather than lecture or condemn, Bad Words offers solutions and alternatives to ugly language as a way to mitigate stereotypes, discrimination and racism.

Said co-director Boban Skerlic, “At first, I thought it was a risky proposition but I really wanted to design a show in the spirit of Poletarac, a very popular Yugoslav children’s show that is part of Serbia’s consciousness. I wanted the community to participate in exploring the culture of childhood.”

After painstakingly developing a synopsis and a script together with the playwright Minja Bogavac, he pitched the show with co-director Nemanja Vojnović.

Ružne reči explores so-called “bad words” and their alternatives while covering the arts and social issues as sub-themes over 30 episodes; it aims to confront stereotypes and show that all children share the same desires, fears and common attitudes.

Dragan Ristic, creator of KAL Roma rock band and composer of the show’s theme song, was an early supporter. He reached out to Belgrade’s Roma community, convincing them that Bad Words was a unique chance to be involved in shaping the representation and portrayal of Roma.

Dragan pointed out, “I was very motivated to help create a vision of the kind of Serbia I believe in and live in every day. It’s integrated, fun, respectful and a great way to reach out to kids before their attitudes have hardened and it’s too late.”

Skerlic emphasized, “What began as an idea presented to the Ministry of Culture of Serbia grew into a larger project with the Roma Education Fund and the German Agency for International Development offering their support. They made it possible for my team to really focus on the workshops and rehearsals that drove the production.”

REF Country Manager for Serbia Natasa Kocic-Rakocevic said, “We really liked Boban’s idea but we also wanted Boban to include success stories of Roma who are part of the fabric of our schools and workplaces.”

Actually it’s not that surprising. One quarter of Serbia’s new labor market entries are expected to be of Roma origins by 2020. National policymakers might pay more attention to education and the creation of a labor market imbued with the in-demand labor market skills as Serbia undergoes economic restructuring as part of its bid to join the market economies of the European Union.

“You can always learn a lot from children,” said Boban Skerlic. “And I learned a lot from the performers whose families went to a great amount of trouble to assure their children attended rehearsals so we could develop the show together. They reminded me of how much we have in common and I think this is the point of the show. We all have a responsibility to ensure our children are educated and have the tools to succeed, no matter what life throws at us. Even if the deck is stacked against us.”

REF Director Nadir Redzepi underlined REF’s support for Bad Words. He said, “We piloted a puppet show, Do You Speak Meow, with a small studio in Novi Sad that subsequently was broadcast by Radio Television Vojvodina, which was encouraging, and we believed we could do something on a national scale, with the potential to reach across the Balkans due to our shared values and culture.”

As word got out about what Skerlic was developing, Belgrade’s creative community also wanted to get involved. Guests included: poets and writers like Ljubivoje Ršumović, Milena Depolo, Nataša Drakulić and Vladimir Andrić, musicians Srđan Gile Gojković, Milivoje Plavi Petrović abd Dušan Petrović, actors Paulina Manov, Slobodan Boda Ninković, Hristina Popović, Anja Alač, Vlastimir Velisavljević, Maja Mandžuka, Anica Dobra and Tihomir Stanić, journalists Zoran Kesić, Ivana Konstantinović and Maja Žeželj, designers and cartoonists like Bob Živković, Aleksandar Kothaj and Boban Savić Geto, plus activist Gordan Paunović and opera singer Sanja Kerkez.

The results are encouraging. Bad Words is capturing 11 percent of viewers under age 24 during this primetime slot on Saturday mornings, with more to come this autumn. For the Roma Education Fund, children’s programming is a new opportunity to reach out to mainstream audiences as well as Roma in a media market still dominated by terrestrial broadcasting. The takeaway is clear: Roma fully belong in our shared vision of Serbia’s quality, inclusive schools, and more widely in the cultural, social and economic life of the Serbia and its neighbors.

Stay tuned every Saturday on RTS in Serbia till the New Year and watch the trailer to Ružne reči here.

The Roma Education Fund is currently implementing a KfW-funded project reaching over 500 high school students in Serbia complete their studies and train for the labor market, among a portfolio of Toy Libraries, desegregation efforts and tertiary secondary scholarships. Its most popular Serbian- and Romani-language Youtube videos is Zanje je moc.