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/ARTS WEEKLY/SOCIETY-SERBIA: A Soapy Link With Latin America

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Sep 2 2003 (IPS) - Serbia has little in common with any Latin American country, but there is something millions of Serbs share with millions of people in Latin America – the soap operas.

Venezuelan and Mexican soap operas have taken up the screens of major TV channels in capital Belgrade, and also in the Serbian provinces.

Millions of people are glued to their TVs in the late afternoon or early evening hours, the prime time for Latin American soap operas. The number goes up to three million in a country of 7.5 million people.

Starting from 5pm, viewers in Belgrade can choose between ‘Roads of Love’ (Vias del amor), ‘Soledad’ or ‘Salome’ (female names) that run one after another on one channel.

Around 8 pm, they can switch to another channel where ‘Love of Gypsies’ (El amor del Gitanos) or ‘Selfish Mothers’ (Madres Egoistas) wait for them. In the late hours, ‘The Wild Rose’ (Rosa Salvaje), ‘Kassandra’ and ‘Esmeralda’ appear on other channels.

For those who had not had enough time or were not at home, re-runs of the day’s episodes are broadcast the following morning.

"Latin American soap operas have become a phenomenon in Serbia in the past years," Prof Ratko Bozovic told IPS. "They are deeply emotional, simple in narrative and carry the much desired message that good always prevails over evil."

The stories usually involve good, honest young women, often orphaned, who fight many problems in their lives. They have to surmount many obstacles to have the man they love, or prove their true noble identity, as many were swapped at birth and given to poor families.

On their way to happiness, that takes some 200 episodes per soap opera, they help children and sympathise with the sick. Their lives are always interwoven with tear-jerking lives of people they share their fates with.

However, the miraculous recovery of the blind, the paralysed or those with cancer turns the lives of all heroes into an idyll. The evil people who stood in the way of gentle heroes get the right punishment for their misdeeds.

"Critics of soap operas and elite culture promoters say these programmes are cheap or worthless," Bozovic says. "However, ordinary people are not after aesthetic values when they watch soap operas. They want an escape from their everyday problems, economic hardships and the indifference of the modern world."

The troubles of the heroes of the epics are retold to customers by vendors at the open-air green markets, the popular gathering points in provincial Serbia. In small towns, it has become a rule not to make family visits or have a long phone conversation at the time when popular Latin American soap operas are on.

If a relative comes from Croatia, Bosnia, Bulgaria or any neighbouring country where the episodes have been shown before being broadcast in Serbia, everyone wants to know what is going to happen, and what effects the wild turnarounds of fate will have on a character.

In the western Serbian town Loznica, a girl was recently named Kassandra after the heroine of the soap opera with that name. Spanish is becoming a popular language and hundreds of students apply to study it at a centre in Belgrade that can enrol only 60 students a year.

Serbian TV guides and popular magazines follow the careers of some of the most popular Latin American actors. Coraima Torres, Edith Gonzales, Leticia Calderon, Guillermo Pevez or Osvaldo Rios travel from one soap opera to another, and editors say the life stories of these actors are in high demand among their readers.

"The Latin American soap operas are not popular only in Spanish speaking countries or in Serbia," psychology professor Zarko Trebjesanin says. "They are globally popular. The modern man is living in the unbelievably developed technical world, but also in a too rationalised world. Emotions and fairy tales are left out of it. The Latin American soap operas fill that void in a new manner."

Some elite culture circles in Serbia have started a campaign to expel Latin American soap operas from TV screens, calling for more sophisticated programmes to be introduced. But their campaign has fallen on deaf ears both among the TV managements and among viewers.

"The Latin American soap operas should not be banned," Trebjesanin says. "They relieve people from stress or everyday political scandals that rock Serbia, they give some comfort. They can replace bensedine (a sedative), which cannot be obtained without prescription any more. For those who don’t like them, there’s a button on the remote to switch to another channel."

Serbian authorities recently banned open sale of bensedine in pharmacies due to mass consumption, and abuse of the drug. It was the most popular means of escaping problems for more than a decade while former leader Slobodan Milosevic was in power.

During the crises that rocked Serbia in the 1990s, from wars in its neighbourhood to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) bombing in 1999, more than 3.5 million tablets were consumed each day. Now there are the soaps.

 
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