Peabody Award-winner Steve York is the writer, producer, and director of BRINGING DOWN A DICTATOR. York has focused much of his work on the ideology and mechanics of nonviolent resistance to tyranny.
Q. What was it about the events in Serbia leading to the overthrow of Milosevic that influenced you to make the film?
A. As a filmmaker who has documented nonviolent struggles in several countries, I paid close attention to events in Yugoslavia and Serbia for the last several years. As September 2000's election approached, it seemed I might have an opportunity to capture the inside story of a movement that appeared likely to succeed against one of the most ruthless authoritarian regimes in recent memory.
Q. What aspects of the story do you think will surprise American viewers?
A. Many of us assume that a brutal authoritarian regime can only be defeated by armed insurrection or violent revolution. But when they see how this struggle was waged to topple Milosevic, I think they'll be amazed. Rock and roll, ridicule, the Internet and email, and an ingenious marketing campaign were just a few of the weapons. As an American taxpayer I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a small portion of our foreign aid budget paid for posters, stickers, and computers in support of the Serbian pro-democracy forces.
Q. Do you see parallels between Otpor and groups who work or worked for change in the U.S., and if so, can you elaborate?
A. There are dozens of parallels. American civil rights leaders of the 1950's and 60's knew how to apply moral and economic pressure, such as boycotts, to raise the cost of oppression to intolerable levels. In the jargon of nonviolent action, these pressures are called sanctions, and they're the key to every nonviolent struggle. In Serbia, a coal miners' strike was a powerful sanction that worked on the same principle. Such actions are not without risk, so both the American civil rights leaders and the Serb resistance leaders prepared and trained their activists for repression and brutality - teaching them what to expect from police, how to behave when arrested, how to survive an interrogation.
Q. Why do you believe this story was underreported in the West?
A. All the American networks showed some dramatic news footage on October 5, 2000, when the opposition seized the Yugoslav Parliament building in Belgrade. A day or two later, I heard the phrase "one day revolution," which totally missed the real story. October 5th was no more than the final moment of a drama that went on for years, involving tens of thousands of determined Serbs. Student activists sitting in cafes organizing protests and writing slogans are not as spectacular as public buildings in flames, so television doesn't cover them. My colleagues and I knew from the start that this was no "one-day revolution" and decided to report the real story.
Q. The nonviolent revolutionaries who overthrew Milosevic used weapons such as intelligence, discipline, commitment, technology, and a sense of humor that weakened a strongman by making people laugh at him. Do you think these techniques are exportable, and if so, to which countries?
A. Virtually all of the weapons used by Otpor could be directly adopted, or slightly adapted, by resistance and opposition movements in other places. It's already happening. For the last six months, Otpor activists have been advising a pro-democracy resistance group in Belarus called "Zubr." I've seen Zubr's website. It looks a lot like Otpor's.
Another example: I recently discovered that an Iranian pro-democracy movement has a website which includes the full text of Gene Sharp's "From Dictatorship to Democracy," a book Otpor relied on. Cell phones, faxes, the Internet, and other technology make communication and organization much more efficient than in Gandhi's time. But the principles employed by Gandhi and by Otpor and by any other nonviolent movement are virtually the same.
Q. How would you characterize the regime currently in power? What are the specific improvements over Milosevic's time?
A. Milosevic the man is gone, but key parts of his corrupt system are still there. Many from the old Milosevic crowd - and some of them are truly gangsters in the Mafia mold - still call the shots, especially in the underground economy, which is huge. Political reform, judicial reform, and economic reforms are desperately needed, but it takes time. And while Vojislav Kostunica replaced Milosevic as president of Yugoslavia, his performance in office has been disappointing. It's good that Kostunica is committed to rule of law, and no one can accuse him of corruption, but he hasn't been an aggressive reformer.
Q. What would you like to see as the outcome of Milosovic's trial at The Hague?
A. In a word, justice. But there's more. Milosevic is on trial for crimes committed against people from other countries, and because this is the first time a former head of state is facing charges for acts committed while in office, it establishes an important precedent. But whatever the verdict, it won't bring back the dead, won't rebuild the destroyed cities and lives. It's probably equally important for Milosevic to be tried in Serbia for the crimes committed against his own people. That trial, if it's ever held, would also have the positive effect of shining light into dark corners so that Serbians can begin confronting their recent past. Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic told a reporter last year, "The enemy is not only Milosevic the man, it's the Milosevic in all of us."
Q. Do the events depicted in BRINGING DOWN A DICTATOR have any bearing on the new world order ushered in by the terrorist attacks of September 11?
A. I don't know anyone who thinks the war against terrorism can be won by military force alone. Terrorists tend to spring up anywhere that people are not free. There are dozens of undemocratic countries in the world - potential breeding grounds for terrorists. But those people who live under tyranny and oppression are not powerless, as this film shows. Recent history shows they have little chance of winning their freedom with violence, but with nonviolent strategies that mobilize entire populations, and with help from the world's democracies, dictators can be brought down, and with them, the climate that breeds terrorism.