Kusturica’s Dreams

Almost sixty year old, he uses his own money to build Orthodox churches, towns and “thematic parks” along the Serbia-Bosnian border. Is he motivated by an investor’s instinct or by a dream about reconquest? Having changed his country of residence, name and confession, will he reach for the camera ever again.

A dream of every artist: to be instantly recognizable from a beat, phrase, chiaroscuro. Kusturica has no problem with that: in every film we could count on fish gills, a hem of a white dress and brass of trumpets, eagerly enumerated later by psychoanalysts and PhD students. Some tried to contain him with the phrase “the Balkan Fellini” but this is like a piece of wisdom taken from a dictionary of clichés. The Sarajevo-born director simply shows a Fellini- like loyalty for a provincial city you left forever, plus maybe a Czech tenderness for the “voices of poor people” and a juvenile hilarity when confronted with slapstick. But his Bosnian childhood was more bony than in the Rimini glimpsed in Amarcord, for communism showed its three inalienable features to Kusturica in an early stage of his life: ugliness, cruelty and an inclination for empty theatricals.

All of it was to be found already in his first feature Do You Remember Dolly Bell. Sarajevo shown there—dusty, with barefooted boys delightedly running about a merry-go-round, in clouds of charcoal smoke, which cannot escape from the mountain gorge—is more deeply implanted in the imagination of every viewer than the townscapes from Ottoman times invoked by cultural operators. And from that moment on it was always like this: the thunder of gunshots, pulled-back hats, three life truths—that is birth, copulation and death— plus a quarrel between the saxophone and the violin formed Kusturica‘s cinematic handwriting and, for millions of his viewers, the essence of “the Balkans.” “If you want to be known all over the world, tell a story about your village”—one more cliché proved to be true.

The present essay is fortunately not an epitaph for the artist, as it is not a place to invoke the numerous immortal scenes: the murderous irony with which he juxtaposed two trains speeding from Zagreb to Belgrade half a century apart (Underground), the melancholy donkey (Life Is a Miracle) and barges on an oily Danube (Black Cat, White Cat) has to wait. Questions about Kusturica begin from the moment when he made his last film.

So, when exactly? The last full-length feature, which received international recognition, is Life Is a Miracle from 2004, the most important film in the history of Serbian cinema. Promise Me This from 2007 went largely unnoticed, similarly to the punk opera Time of the Gypsies staged in the same year in Opéra Bastille, the clip for Manu Chao or a documentary on Maradona (2008). Later, Kusturica has stood in front of the camera but as an actor; previously he had been fooling around in secondary roles and now he had the audience mesmerised like in the French L’affaire Farewell (2009), where he played a KGB double agent.

Plans for future films abound. Kusturica has been working for four years on the screening of The Bridge on the Drina¸based on the epic novel by the Yugoslav Noble Prize winner Ivo Andrić. Internet discussion boards are full of hopes for the great portrait of Mexican Revolution in which Salma Hayek and Johnny Depp are to be cast. We hear about other planned films where the grotesque seems to hold sway over the epic: One critic saw a script on a Palestinian living in Hamburg and earning his living by bellydancing; one journalist heard a promise that Kusturica would make a film based on Crime and Punishment, with an unconventional cast which would completely overturn the message of the novel. Just this February Alexey Balabanov, one of the greatest contemporary Russian artists, invited Kusturica to help him make a film on the youth of Iosif Dzhugashvilli and in early April the director of Underground announced that his next work would feature the morbid theme of “trade in human organs” supposedly practiced by Kosovo guerrillas, kidnapping Serbian and Albanian “donors” and visiting a horrible death upon then. Belly dance and ripping the belly apart, Sonia Marmeladova and Salma Hayek— will all this be squeezed into “Love and War” announced for next year?

Let us hope that all these films will be made. But in recent years Kusturica is no longer putting up stage sets. He is putting up towns.

The Balkan Fitzcarraldo

However, it has to be admitted that the whole undertaking started with stage sets and film locations. The director himself claims that already when working on the film Life Is a Miracle in the Zlatibor District, around the narrow-gauge railroad playing an important role in this work, he decided—strikingly for a frequent visitor to New York and Paris—to settle on one of the nearby hills. We are not speaking about a dacha, a chalet or a minimalist modern house with a plate-glass wall merging with the landscape: Mokra Gora was first burdened with a few wooden cottages bought for the purposes of the film and then other houses, bought almost for free in depopulating villages, started to travel across the muddy wilderness. The steamship’s epic journey immortalized by Herzog is nothing compared to shifting a whole village—sometimes from a distance of several hundred kilometers—to the place where the patriarch decided to settle.

Kusturica sheared down and restructured the transported buildings in line with his vision of a model Serbian village. Some houses and homesteads he raised from scratch and in the heart of the settlement he erected—also in a fairy-tale, “Old Serbian” style—a wooden church dedicated to St. Sava, patron of Serbia and Serbs. This is how Drvengrad, a “wooden town,” came into being. An open-air museum? More of a “theme park”: An ideal, imagined, timeless Serbia, to which school trips, newly married couples and retirees flock from all over the country, in order to, as they declare themselves, take in whole lungfuls of their homeland.

Instead they land in a realm of, to use Hobsbawm’s phrase, “imagined tradition,” in a trap in which European culture has often fallen since the times of Romanticism: what was intended as primordial and profoundly authentic turns out to be an arbitrary construct. Drvengrad does not even try to pretend that it is an ordinary village— happy, lazy and flea-ridden. The visitors wander along streets named after Ivo Andrić, Maradona, Bergman and Che Guevara, in the inn they delight their palates with “native Serbian” dishes, washing them down with plum vodka or “Che” juices imported from Cuba (Coca-Cola is forbidden), and after the sightseeing and filling their stomachs they can descend, well, underground. Under the surface of Mokra Gora there is no room for timber: the ceilings built of prestressed concrete span over a library with historical literature, the most modern cinema-hall in Serbia and a basketball hall—a tribute from the Founding Father for the triumphs of the Serbian national ream. The whole Drvengrad, the preserve of “eternal Serbia,” is in fact one big simulacrum on hillsides, a Matrix strewn with sawdust.

Twenty-two kilometers from Mokra Gora one finds the historic Višegrad, famous for a 16th-century masterpiece: the bridge founded by Mehmed Pasha Sokolović and playing the principal role in the “Noble Prize” novel and a dozen lesser ones.

In the most neglected part of the town, now lying in Bosnia but within the borders of the autonomous Republika Srpska vying for actual independence from Sarajevo, Kusturica has been raising another time capsule for the last two years. “Stone Town” (Kamengrad) does not offer such technological fireworks as a cinema-hall in the entrails of a muddy hill but the budget of the undertaking surpassed euro 15 million as well this time: luckily, Serbian government has a 49% share in this venture.

The theme park on the Drina invokes an idyll, which is not pastoral but rooted in a specific epoch. It is an essence of Višegrad as it could have looked like in the era terminated by the gunshots of Gavrilo Princip: the taste of Bosnia and Herzegovina under the rule of the good-natured Franz Josef. Low houses of Muslim merchants side by side with windowless front walls, caravanserai, the building of the “Academy of Fine Arts financed by Vienna,” old Orthodox church and buildings with modern facilities inserted between them: a modern bookshop, a multi-room cinema as flashy as the one in Drvengrad, a harbour and (this sounds like a fragment of an advertising brochure published by a developer) an airstrip for helicopters. And next to all that—even more peculiar things, compatible neither with a “reconstruction” project nor with a “haven of luxury,” conjured by the fiat of the initiator: a Spanish café (“This being a bow to a chronicler of human cruelty and suffering, Goya, worshipped by Ivo Andrić”) and an opera building, where Kusturica hopes to stage an opera version of “The Bridge over the Drina”written, composed and directed by himself. All of this coming next year.

A Town Built of Air

Drvengrad, Kamengrad… But an element exists with which Kusturica has been working longer than with wood or stone. For six years, in mid-January, the Mokra Gora settlement is changing into “Kustendorf” for one week. Apart from the linguistic joke (in the invented, mock German name we can distinctly hear “Kusta,” that is the eternal sobriquet of the director formed from his surname), Kustendorf is the name of an international film and music festival, which overshadowed with its impetus and renown everything that the rest of crisis-worn Serbia has to offer a long time ago.

Intended as a “competition for young directors and an opportunity to meet the legends of cinema,” Kustendorf Festival had six editions already. In 2008 it was opened by Nikita Mikhalkov, this year Audrey Tatou and Monica Belluci were the guests of honour and the full list of musicians, authors and directors who have arrived under the Zlatibor ridge would satisfy the editor of every ambitious illustrated magazine. Bryan Ferry and David Gilmore, Jim Jarmusch and Marjan Satrapi, Abbas Kiarostami and Jan Hřebejk have watched some good several hundred films as jury members. The bulky giant is all over the place during the festival: He directs the No Smoking Orchestra band, he chairs the debates, adds multiple new competition categories and bestows on the winners of the “Golden Egg,” the main honour for the entrants, the privilege of a one-month grant in Drvengrad. A one man show, definitely—but what else can we expect from the “Kusta town”?

And yet, it is just a part of the whirlpool the director created around himself and which is constantly dragging him in: he is still surrounded with scandals and fame, lawsuits and arguments. In three years, he received three major decorations: the French Legion of Honour, the Serbian Order of St. Sava and—perhaps not the most prestigious but presented to him with greatest pomp and circumstance—the Russian prize of the Foundation of Orthodox Nations awarded by the Moscow patriarch Kirill. The award is presented at the Kremlin, which in 2009, when Kusturica became its recipient, was particularly propitious for the organisers, for the director shared this honour with the then President Dmitri Medvedev. And when he gets tired of girdles, he always manages to fascinate a dozen female journalists with a sky-ripping series of shots from a Kalashnikov [sic], downing a bottle of rakija without the intermediary of a glass or challenging a leader of a disliked party for a duel. Our Kusta. A bear. Longbeard. Probably capable of biting through a high-tension wire without any detriment to his health.

But what remains if we stand back a few steps from the maelstrom of Kusturica, if we let fall down the clouds of dust, sawdust, the feathers of chicken taking up for a cosmic flight and the bombastic phrases about the “need for a national revival”? The director never styled himself into an academic thinker: he enjoys sweeping phrases like “In my work I am a Trotskyist, I am making a permanent revolution”; asked about his inspirations, his likes to throw a handful of names/slogans in the air, from Majakovsky to Blake, forcing the interviewers and critics to fiddle with footnotes. But even in the most natural element one can observe deep undercurrents. Where is Kusta headed today, what does he want to create, whom is he quoting?

Enemies, Allies and Roots

“America,” “The West,” Hollywood, imperialism and capitalism—bugaboos from an agitator’s handbook, slumbering in the sleepy era of Brezhnev and his successors, awoke for good some time ago. Were they awaken by the war in Iraq, by the global economic crisis or by Slavoj Žižek? Only Tony Judt could give a precise answer to this question. But it is only fair to add that in our part of Europe an additional shove was the NATO intervention during the Kosovo conflict in 1999— and especially its strongest note: the bombing of Belgrade. It may have been “surgical,” it may have been inevitable but it hit the nerve and the memory. And of Kusturica also.

Underground and Life Is a Miracle show that even before the intervention the director did not hold a high opinion on the arguments presented by “Western” marines and journalists arriving in the Balkans. But in the 2000s a watershed came, known from the pronouncements of the protagonists of the recent novels by Le Carré and college café regulars. The shallower the anti-Americanism is, the more widely it spreads: from the interviews given by Kusturica to Izvestia and NIN we learn that the whole offer of Washington can be reduced to a pop-cultural package: fatty hamburgers and sequels of “action movies.” And violence. “Four and a half million victims in Vietnam, one million in Iraq, ever new deaths in Afghanistan…” he enumerates sadly or, overjoyed by his political incorrectness, during a tour of his No Smoking Orchestra he makes unambiguous and kind allusions to Radovan Karadžić, tried in the Hague for genocide in Bosnia, a bete noire for Western public opinion.

In their refinement, such interviews recall the achievements of Michael Moore but Kusturica had better masters. Above all Peter Handke, Austrian playwright and director probably known as the most serious Western European opponent of the intervention in Bosnia, the Dayton peace agreement and awarding independence to Kosovo, a man who was the chairman of the jury during the first edition of the Kustendorf Festival. But also Susan Sarandon or Jim Jarmusch, when standing in the limelight on the underground stage in Drvengrad, could hardly be expected to enter into argument with the tirades which Kusta likes to pronounce, targeted at the accomplishments of Tony Blair, George W. Bush, bankers, drones and pharmaceutical corporations. If one day he decides to film an add for yet another “Indignant Movement”—politicians, beware.

Unless he makes an add promoting Dostoevsky first. Or Gogol. A profound admiration for Russian statehood, art and spirituality is present in Serbia at least from the 18th century. Strongly justified historically, it got weaker, but never vanished, only in particularly unpropitious circumstances: during the Stalin-Tito conflict or the opening to the West in the 1960s. Today a turn towards Russia seems an obvious choice for Serbia in the eyes of both those alarmed by the loss of identity in the era of globalization and those skeptical about the “post- Dayton order” in the Balkans. Every successive gesture of Russia—be it a verbal protest against the division of Kosovo or including Belgrade in the gas expansion scheme—augments this capital of trust. The declarations of Kusturica, who says to Izvestia that “Russia stands on the philosophical stone, Russian artists draw from an eternal source of inspiration and Russian people have gone through more suffering than any other nation on the planet”, his successive visits to the Kremlin, where he is received with honors—all the while proving how big this capital is.

Jeers for the Yankees, kindness for the Russians—similar gestures, only less eloquent and charming, are practiced by dozens of Serbian, and probably not only Serbian, artists today. Now let us address the greatest U-turn by Kusturica, which is, by the way, a major stylistic challenge for all those who try to avoid onomastic monotony when writing about him and alternately use his surname and name.

On 23rd of April 2005, on the day of St. George (Djurdjevdan), important for the Serbian Orthodox symbolic system, Emir Kusturica was baptised in the Montenegrin monastery of Savina, adopting the name of the 12th-century Serbian king and saint Stefan Nemanja, founder of a powerful dynasty and the Hilandar monastery on the Athos Peninsula, the cradle and treasure house of Serbian culture. Much to his chagrin, data bases, critics and encyclopaedias have not yet taken this fact in and he still goes by the (obviously Islamic) name Emir. “My father was an atheist and he always described himself as a Serb,” he commented on the whole affair for the Guardian. “OK, maybe we were Muslim for 250 years, but we were Orthodox before that and deep down we were always Serbs, religion cannot change that. We became Muslims only to »wait out« the Turks.”

It would seem that getting baptised as an adult is a proof of a serious spiritual quest but also a purely private act. But the act of Emir/Nemanja is also a blow to the cornerstone of Bosnian national identity, and the consequences of this blow are difficult to assess today.

It is so because not only the religious conversion was made by the most recognizable and, we could justifiably claim, the greatest of artists born in Sarajevo and until recently associated with Bosnia. Equally important is the rhetoric used by Kusturica, directly relating to the great argument about the existence of Bosnian (Muslim) national identity. The argument erupted in the second half of the 19th century, when—simultaneously with the first attempts at forming a “Bosnian identity” in Bosnia and Herzegovina annexed by Vienna— Serbian and Croatian thinkers, historians and “educators of the nation” started to claim ever more fervently that Muslim inhabitants of Bosnia were “essentially” Slavs (Serbs or Croats), on whom Islam was imposed after the Ottoman invasion, or that they adopted it as part of the Balkan ketman only. And if so—this is another link in the essentialist chain of reasoning—it is possible to “recover” them for the Serbian or Croatian national character: of course the “recovery” would be done by us, the “true” and “unwavering” ones, with an adequate dose of superiority.

As long as this argument appeared only in newspapers and books, you could prove its feebleness and incompleteness. Undoubtedly after the Ottoman conquest of the Western Balkans conversions to Islam must have been numerous; but centuries later their intentions are unfathomable and the conviction that in the “pre-national” epoch you can speak about any Serbs or Croats is pure primordialism. But this belief received a terrible homage in blood during World War II (although then its victims were mostly Orthodox Serbs, thousands of whom were confronted by Ante Pavelić’s Ustaše with the following choice: forced baptism in the Catholic rite or death or even worse, baptism followed by death) and in our times, during the conflict in Bosnia. Also today you can quite frequently hear in Serbia and Croatia that Bosnian national, cultural and religious identity is a product of an act of mimicry, so it is inauthentic in its essence. If you believe that, it is not difficult to appeal to the Bosnians to liberate themselves from their alienation by recognizing their Serbian or Croatian roots. Emir / Nemanja is staying away from such considerations; and yet his choice provided a very powerful argument to one side of the battle.

* * *

Standing on the western slopes of Mokra Gora on a clear day, it seems you can almost touch the hills of Bosnia; the border runs in a straight line four kilometers from here. “A musing hero on a summit” is a clichéd motif in Romantic painting, from Friedrich to Wańkowicz, so it requires some daring to reach for it nowadays. But it imposes itself in this context, without grand postures; it is enough to walk your dog or stretch your legs after hours of working by the editing table to stand face to face with the “old country”; it takes a two-hour drive along winding roads to reach Sarajevo, which Kusturica left in 1992.

How often is he looking that way? Does he sometimes make this very “cinematic” gesture, making a camera viewfinder with his thumbs and index fingers? And is he going to transfer to the screen something of what he is seeing when looking at Bosnia?

Wojciech Stanislawski

Wojciech Stanislawski is a historian and a columnist. His main topics of interest include Polish intellectual history in 20th century and nation-building processes in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Until 2017 he was the editor of Plus Minus, the weekend edition of Rzeczpospolita daily. Recently he joined the Polish History Museum. In 2016 he published the translation of Solomon Volkov’s Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn.

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