Brave art: Haris Pasovic's Class Enemy

WHEN war broke out in the former Yugoslavia in 1991, Haris Pasovic was 200 miles away from his native city of Sarajevo, directing a show in Subotica, in the far north of Serbia. At the time, he was 30 years old, part of a generation who had been raised – under the relatively benign "soft communism" of Marshal Tito – to think of themselves not as Bosnians, Serbs or Croats, but as Yugoslavs. More than that, he was the acclaimed wünderkind of the late-1980s Yugoslav theatre scene, forging a

But when he realised the country in which he had grown up was falling apart – and that his native city, caught in its narrow, winding river valley, was about to suffer one of the most dramatic sieges and bombardments in modern European history – he knew that he had to return.

"Yes, I was out of Sarajevo when the war began," he says now, over a strong coffee in an Edinburgh pub whose laid-back morning atmosphere he clearly relishes. "And I could have stayed out. But I didn't feel I should. I grew up in adoration of writers like Hemingway, George Orwell, Anna Akhmatova, and that has always been my idea about the artist – that you have to be a brave and freedom-loving person. Also, I like the idea of seeing something come from nothing. The city was really destroyed at that moment, absolutely in a terrible situation; and I hope I created a few things that helped the city to begin to recover."

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The recovery of Sarajevo, after a war that cost 12,000 civilian lives in the city alone, is far from complete even today; but there's no doubt among most of those who live there that Haris Pasovic has made a huge contribution to it over the last 16 years. During the siege, he famously restarted the Sarajevo International Theatre Festival, inviting Susan Sontag to the city to direct a legendary production of Waiting For Godot; in 1993, at the height of the conflict, he founded the now-thriving Sarajevo Film Festival.

And after the peace agreement of 1995, he chose to remain in the city, making films, teaching students at the Academy of Performing Arts, and, in recent years, founding his new East-West Theatre Company, whose electrifying Bosnian-language production of Nigel Williams's 1978 classroom drama Class Enemy plays at the Royal Lyceum during this year's International Festival, and then tours to Rutherglen, Stirling and Cumbernauld.

"I can't say how pleased I am to be part of this brilliant Festival programme, with the theme of Artists Without Borders," says Pasovic, "because this has been a huge part of my life for the past 16 years, this theme of borders reappearing, borders being crossed and overcome.

"My company is called East-West Theatre precisely because Sarajevo is this city on the border between East and West, the place where the Great Mosque and the Catholic Cathedral and the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral stand almost within touching distance of each other. This is maybe the biggest issue in the world today, the East-West relationship between the Muslim world and the western world; and this awareness should be more prominent in our lives.

"When I chose this play by Nigel Williams, though, I was thinking above all of the levels of violence in the lives of young people in Bosnia today. There is a great undercurrent of violence still existing from the war, and often a strong sense of betrayal or abandonment by young people who have grown up with this. There's domestic violence, a war veteran problem, refugees. There is also a new culture of violence in films and (video] games and so on which feeds into that; and there is a really powerful new materialism, which sometimes seems almost to make people sick with craving for the right material things and brand names.

"So we have stories all the time of beatings, knifings, shootings, even bombings – there was a young boy who firebombed his girlfriend's house and killed several people, just because she wouldn't answer his text messages. And what I feel about this play of Nigel Williams's, although it comes from a very different situation, is that it deals very beautifully and powerfully with this theme of violence, on several levels.

"There is a very obvious and strong political and social level. There is a complex and detailed psychological level. And above all, we have what you can call a metaphysical level, because I think that in this play Williams went to the very core or the source of human violence, where all elements play together to create a violent event."

When Class Enemy opened in Sarajevo last year, the city's newspaper described the production as "passionate, shocking, awakening" and Pasovic is clear that it draws much of its intensity from the energy of its cast, all young actors from the Sarajevo area whose childhood was scarred and shaped by the war, and who are now living with its continuing human consequences. Unlike Williams's original play, Pasovic's version features both male and female characters – anything else, he says, would be unrealistic under modern conditions. He used some young ex-offenders as advisers on the production and he involved a pair of young hip-hop artists from a small town in Bosnia, who had been beaten up by a bunch of officially-sanctioned thugs after singing songs criticising the mayor on a local radio station. "I was outraged by that story," says Pasovic. "So I called them up and invited them to come to Sarajevo to be part of this project. To beat up young people because of their songs – I felt that was not permissible, even in Bosnia in the 21st century."

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In all his work, in other words, Pasovic is mainly concerned with the idea of freedom, and the role of theatre both in freeing the spirit and imagination, and in encouraging people to debate what freedom truly is. "I honestly fear," he says, "that the idea of liberty is dying out. We might have a functioning society in future, but that doesn't mean that we will be free people. Bertrand Russell described this possibility in his brilliant book The Scientific Outlook, which I am working on now as the possible basis for a show. I think we are slowly killing liberty, creativity, intelligent thinking; it's as if we are being led into a world that is like a huge shopping centre, with a sort of anaesthesia about everything, except the choice of goods in front of us.

"And in this situation, art comes into the role of waking us up, changing the discourse, and producing eros – real creative and sexual energy, rather than cheap images of it. I always thought that theatre had to be truthful. But now I know that we are also influential and frankly I don't find a lot of responsibility in the way some artists conduct themselves today. I believe in the value of life, and in the seriousness of ideas. I am a zealot of seriousness," he says, with a twinkling smile that somehow reinforces the thought, rather than undermining it, "and I know that you cannot even do really good comedy without it.

"People come to the theatre in search of a real encounter with other human beings, and we must give them what they come for. Our capacity to do that is the measure of being human. And if the price is that we sometimes say something not very pleasant – well, that's precisely why people want us, in the end; because we speak the truth."

• Class Enemy is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 20-23 August, then on tour until 4 September. Haris Pasovic is in conversation with Nigel Williams at The Hub on 22 August, and will give a talk on Bertrand Russell's book The Conquest Of Happiness on 28 August.