Jelena Djurovic
Film critic. Jewish activist. Cat person.
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How my mom became an Insta star without even trying

Her 'tough love' parenting was more tough than love: things turned around when I helped make her into a Serbian social media sensation
My interview with my mother Svetlana the Insta-star. (screen from YouTube video)

“On the platform of a dozen filters, where everybody is the editor of their own Cosmopolitan, Svetlana Davidovac creates an online memoir with her pale photos. There are creases, the reflection of a camera flash, some figures are indiscernible, but we don’t mind. Because she is telling us stories and we believe her. She doesn’t present her life as the bucket list fulfilled. She is critical of her closest ones, talking about real-life ups and downs.” Maria Milojković, from an article on Medium.com

Her name is Svetlana Davidovac, I am Jelena Djurovic. She is 74 and I am a bit younger 🙂

Her Jewish ancestry is well known and respected – Svetlana’s great grandmothers were the Zellermeier sisters, made famous in the novel The Bridge on the Drina by the Nobel Prize winning author Ivo Andrić. She is my mom and until this time last year we were mostly at loggerheads.

A tale as old as time: child has several emergency buttons, and only parents know too well how to push them.

While I was growing up, my mother believed in the popular misconception that tough love would be super motivating, so she never praised me for my accomplishments and that was of course “for my own good.” When I graduated from university with distinction she shrugged it off with “Oh, well.” When I became a journalist on a national radio station, Svetlana said “You have to be on TV.” Then I became an online TV personality – “Well that is the Internet.” And so on and so forth.

You know that person, a paragon of your typical never satisfied mom. She and I were never properly attached, never fully connected, like two random people in an elevator. Mostly awkward stares and silences, but this elevator never stops and for decades nobody is supposed to get out. No phone screens to look at, no headphones, no elevator music to distract us.

All that changed. If this was a movie where I did not want to bother you with boring details I’d say that it changed in a day, or overnight. But in reality it took a) one sprained ankle, and b) a pandemic of biblical proportions. The world had to (almost) stop and something unfathomable needed to happen so that my mom and I could become a bit more than just another case in psychiatrist’s filing cabinet.

Sprained ankle

I had an accident in Sweden last summer where I wrenched my right ankle while taking a selfie, and a tedious rehabilitation ensued. Physiotherapy, then rest, then swimming pool exercise. Clearly I had a bit of time on my hands. Mom told me “since you are super bored right now, can you upload some photos on my phone, somewhere I can reach them easily.” Before that she used to carry physical artefacts of our lives in her pocket (photos… like real photos).

So, I opened the svetlana_davidovac Insta account for her, posted a few pictures and added some witty yet ironic captions. She was kind of satisfied (wow!). As my rehabilitation routine became more monotonous, creativity flourished. Captions became longer and more humorous. Svetlana found them hilarious, and so did my friends and friends of friends… (I have been accused of many things in my life, not being funny is not one of them).

Within a week mom and I are Insta-masterminding. Svetlana’s small group of friends were thrilled, our family in Canada is all in for laughs. After ten days, mom starts writing little stories of her own: stories about love and loss, our family history, her parents’ divorce, childhood after the war, my father’s tragic demise in a car accident… I only add emojis because she doesn’t know how.

Within a month or so her account balloons to several thousand followers. Then in September 2019 her Instagram is suddenly everywhere – in the news, on millennial websites. She becomes a meme! Celebrities write on their social media that their mothers are just like Svetlana.

As the account gains popularity and approaches 5,000 followers, comical things are happening on an almost daily basis. When I visit a new café, a young waitress asks me, “Are you Jelena?”

“Yes, that’s me,” I answer falsely reserved, pretending to be shy while I am so very proud. I bet she watches my YouTube shows about movies and TV series and she finds me to be a cool TV critic.

“I knew it! You are Svetlana’s daughter, she is too funny, send her my regards.”

Winter arrives and the account is still flying high, but now the tables have turned a bit… I am all over the media. I was one of the first critics in the region to embrace Joker as the most powerful zeitgeist movie of the year, so I appear on national TV every couple of days. (Eventually Joker will become the highest grossing blockbuster in Serbia ever, with more than 350,000 people seeing it in cinemas).

Mother is cautiously proud, she promotes my work on her Insta and life is good. We are friends and collaborators on a project. Who would have imagined? Certainly not me.

Hello March 2020.

The Pandemic.

“Mom, let’s use your account for a good cause? You could invite people to stay at home, keep their distance, wear masks.”

From Belgrade to Zagreb to Sarajevo, the media in the former Yugoslavia united to spread the message from an amusing, smart Jewish pensioner based in Serbia. Then, the first “serious” article on the Svetlana phenomenon was published on Medium.

Serbia’s government imposed one of the strictest quarantines the world has ever seen (people over 65 were banned from leaving their homes for almost two months, and the whole nation was in lockdown during Orthodox Easter for four full days). Svetlana endured all of this like a soldier and Instagram helped her a lot. She took to writing nice, warm stories as she finally understood she could influence people, give them strength, kindness and joy. We were on the phone constantly, discussing “what should be the next topic? which photo should we use?” By popular demand, on her birthday, 22nd of June, she sat with me for a 30-minute interview and her fans loved it.

* * *

Mom has her ups and downs, but Instagram is still her passion and my backdoor to the long lost place, to “normal” families, where terms like “fine”, “enough” or even “grand” might be used more often or… at all?

We are all on this ship, sailing through crazy situations, experiencing new things and there will be some reckoning. My take is that the world is going to revert to its pre-pandemic condition as soon as the vaccine is brought to the market. But my relationship with Mother evolved into a completely different beast, and that thing is, I hope, irreversible.

That is, until she decides that she needs someone who will post BETTER emojis.

About the Author
Chairwoman of Organisation for Jewish Cooperation in Southeastern Europe (OJC). Well known activist in the Jewish Communities and international organisations. Film and TV critic, pop culture aficionado, published writer and former politician. Jelena edits www.agitpop.me, a website devoted to pop-culture and politics, and also runs her own video production company and YouTube channel. Her media career started when she was tender age of 11, hosting a popular program for kids on Yugoslav Radio Television. Hooked on journalism and TV from very young age she worked for few more or less reputable radio stations and news outlets in the region. Over the last two years, she has interviewed some of the most important figures in culture and politics in Balkans and former Yugoslavia, as well as some famous artists of international fame (in NYC, for instance, she sat with late Milton Glaser for an hour-long interview). Jelena was an independent councillor in the central borough of Belgrade (Vracar), where she also served as a President of the Committee for Gender Equality. She is an avid fiction writer (authored two novels, Kingdom (2003) and February 30th (2011).
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