Article of Dan Halpern in American magazine New York Times, 8 may 2005

The (Mis)Directions of Emir Kusturica by DAN HALPERN

Last year at the Cannes Film Festival, the Sarajevo-born director Emir Kusturica was taking questions from the press about his new movie. He was discussing the sorts of things he likes to discuss : why the cinema he loves is being ruined by an inhuman, mass-produced fast food coming out of Hollywood, for instance. Until, inevitably, he was visited with a mild version of the question reporters have never failed to ask him over the last decade: During the wars that destroyed Yugoslavia in the 1990's, why didn't he come out publicly against Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian leader who was ravaging his homeland ?
Kusturica, who spent most of his life in Bosnia but now lives in Serbia, is one of the most celebrated filmmakers in Europe, as festooned with various film-festival golden palms and golden lions and silver bears as anyone working in cinema today. His films When father was away on business and Underground each won the top prize at Cannes in 1985 and 1995, respectively, and this week he returns to Cannes to serve as president of the most prestigious festival jury in the world. But over the last 10 years, the man whom his fans see as the heir to Fellini's impassioned exuberance has been asked about his politics almost as much as his movies. And at times, he loses his patience for it. So, in Cannes: why didn't he speak up against Milošević?
'Nobody's perfect', he said.

When he's not being questioned by reporters or touring as a guitarist in his popular Balkan gypsy-punk-rock band, Kusturica (pronounced KOOS-toor-eet-sa) now spends most of his time in a small village in western Serbia he has recently had constructed from scratch. He's a big man, standing 6-foot-3, with a powerful chest and a potent set of shoulders, and there is an amiable menace to the way he moves; he has a reputation as a brawler and a firebrand, but, relaxing in his village, where I visited him recently, he comes off more like a gentle papa or, sometimes, a beneficent feudal lord.
While Kusturica may be little known in America, he has achieved a peculiarly European renown. In Madrid, where his band, the No Smoking Orchestra, played to a sold-out crowd in January, his film Black Cat, White Cat remains wildly popular seven years after its release. His most recent movie, Life is a miracle, in which a Serbian engineer falls in love with his Bosnian Muslim hostage, shared France's prestigious Cesar award for best European film, in February. And yet he remains enormously controversial. To his critics, Kusturica is an apologist and propagandist for the murderous forces that devastated his country.

Born in 1954, Kusturica grew up an only child in a secular Muslim family in Sarajevo, the capital of the Yugoslav republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At 18 he was packed off to Prague to study at the Czech state film school, FAMU, in part thanks to the older Kusturicas' anxiety over the young Emir's enthusiastic interest in minor acts of youthful criminality. It didn't take him long to be noticed. By the time he was 40, he had already won most of the major prizes the film world has to offer.
The international success of his first films, set in Sarajevo, was unheard of for a Yugoslav director, and Kusturica was essentially crowned a prince of the city, its great cultural savior and all-around celebrity ; but the war that dismembered the nation ended his love affair with his birthplace. In 1992, Serbian paramilitiaries, with the support of the Yugoslav army, began a campaign of terror against Bosnia's Muslims and Croats as the leaders of the Bosnian republic began to follow other republics in seceding from Yugoslavia. When the fighting began, Kusturica was living in Paris. 'I couldn't believe it', he says. 'I was one of those people who wouldn't believe this would happen, that this could be happening. I didn't want to believe.'
He wasn't ultimately given any choice, of course. Even before the war began, Kusturica got himself involved in various political and physical altercations – with Bosnians who thought he wasn't Bosnian enough, with Serbian nationalists who thought he was too Bosnian – and his battles continued throughout the war. (Most famously, Kusturica challenged Vojislav Šešelj, a radical ultranationalist Serbian politician and paramilitary leader, to a duel in Belgrade; Šešelj refused, saying he wouldn't be responsible for the death of a naive artist.) At the outset of the siege of Sarajevo, Kusturica wrote an impassioned plea in Le Monde for his battered city. Not long after that, Bosnian Muslim irregulars looted the Sarajevo apartment belonging to his parents, who had moved to Montenegro; even his film prizes were taken. A few months later, his father died of a heart attack. 'This war killed him too', Kusturica said at the time. And this, perhaps above all, is something he is not willing to forgive Sarajevo for.
'My father was always saying we were Serbs', he says, 'but I didn't pay much attention.' Kusturica finally went to a library and says he confirmed that the Kusturicas had been Orthodox Christian Serbs until, a few centuries ago, a branch of the family converted to Islam when the region was under Ottoman domination. It's a common ancestral story among Bosnia's Muslim Slavs, few of whom consider themselves Serbs because of it. For his part, Kusturica refused to see himself as either a Bosnian Muslim or Serb. Instead, like a good number of Sarajevens, he affirmed his loyalty to the Yugoslav experiment, a complex cultural brew of Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, Gypsies – a mix of religions and ethnicities and historical nationalities that together formed a single nation.
By the time of the Balkan wars, many of Kusturica's countrymen had come to regard 'Yugoslavia' as a code word for Serbian domination. But Kusturica continued to insist that he was simply a Yugoslav. His wife, Maja, is the child of a Bosnian Serb and a Slovene-Croat, making their children, Stribor, 26, and Dunja, 18, Slovene-Croat-Bosnian-Muslim Serbs. Which is to say that Kusturica's family represents a version of what was once called Yugoslavia.

Indeed, the subtitle of Underground, his most celebrated and controversial film, is 'Once Upon a Time There Was a Country'. Completed during the siege of Sarajevo, the movie is a satirical tour de force about the web of lies men made for one another in communist Yugoslavia. Like a hilarious, heartbreaking dream, it follows two seemingly invincible best friends, Marko and Blacky, happy hooligans in love with the same woman, who join the Yugoslav partisan resistance against the Nazis in Belgrade. After a scheme goes wrong, Marko, a slick opportunist, wins the object of their affection by fooling Blacky, a bullish roughneck, into thinking the war is still going on and hiding him and a host of other dupes in a basement – the conceit of the movie is that he pulls this off for decades – until they finally emerge only to see their country break apart.
In Cannes in 1995, Underground won the highest prize, the Golden Palm. The evening the prizes were announced, a fight occured at Kusturica's party - where was playing the gypsy band of the film - with the Cannes security team, but this was only the beginning. Accusations haven't stopped, from important critics and intellectuals : Kusturica's parabole of the history of Yugoslavia gave an exotic side to the Balkans and excused the Westerners not to imply more into the conflicts, that some already saw as the worst crimes committed in Europe since the second world war. Critics saw in Marko and Blacky the idealization by Kusturica of the Serbs forced to desparate acts by History and ennemis' horrors, while the traitors of the film were Croats and Bosnians who chose the collaboration. It didn't help the cause of Kusturica that the Serbian Radio-Television, headed by Milošević's governement, had a small financing role in the film production, nor that the yugoslav army lent some war materiel for the shooting.
Kusturica's film - and his eventual choice to live and to identify with Serbia - is still percieved by many Bosnians as a betrayal against his birthplace. At the end of the conflict, Kusturica strongly condemned the leaders of the muslim community of Bosnia. According to the writer Aleksandar Hemon, born in Bosnia and immigrated to the USA before the war, Underground represents the Serbian atrocities by presenting ”Balkans war as the result of a collective madness, fool and wild”. Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek says that Underground is ”a mythical representation of the Balkans for the Westerners' gaze”, adding that ”it's a film which internationalize the western notion of a crazy country, where the war is simply in our nature”. (see Zizek's book : “the wound of the fantaisies”, the part on Kusturica is called “poetry of ethnic purification”).
Kusturica refused to make too much to defend himself, him or his film. ”To this guy who treated me of a nationalist when the war started”, he says, ”this guy who said I was pro-Milošević, I say to him : 'No, I'm not for Milošević, I'm against you'.” Hi arguing is that West found a common demon and, for the need of a simple narration, concluded by an example that all the Serbs were minidemons (in 1999, he said that Underground could be perceived as ”the strongest attack ever made against Milošević”).
Most of the time, Kusturica seemed to be hit, nervous, and certainly more often again, simply unhappy of all those accusations. After havingendured six months of abuses, he annonced he would stop making films. He didn't do it, of course. His next film, Black Cat, White Cat, which started as a documentary on the gypsy music became a romantic comedy with gypsy-gangsters of 135 minutes, where the actors are all beginners and with no obvious political message, and it has become its best film at the box-office.

'Emir likes to make a mess', says Nele Karajlić, the frontman and vocalist for No Smoking Orchestra since the band's founding in the early 80's (Kusturica joined in 1986; it is now officially called Emir Kusturica and the No Smoking Orchestra). 'I think his idea is, when he makes a movie, whatever he's going to do, if it's got a wedding, a funeral, some party, anything – he always wants to make a lot of noise, both in sound and in color'. As we drove to dinner in Belgrade this past December, the noise Kusturica was making mostly took the form of a great and serious indignation with the corporatization of the world. From the passenger seat, he was growing increasingly enraged by the billboards in the city. The Serbian capital is only slowly recovering from the effects of war, international sanctions and the NATO bombing it suffered in 1999, but superficially it's well into a headlong rush toward consumer commercialism. 'Here, like in Moscow, even in Petersburg, everywhere,' he said, gesturing angrily at the advertisements lining the street. 'Everywhere starts to look the same, everything must look the same, everything that was different, it must be covered up by this sameness.' He was fully caught up in a momentum of sincere outrage when his wife, Maja, a dark-haired beauty with a particularly graceful knack for letting the air out of the international superstar sitting next to her, gently stopped him short.

  • Emir : Everything must be sold! Everything must be for sale! Everyone must buy! Everyone must have a Jeep!
  • Maja : Even you.
  • Emir : Yes, even me.
  • Maja : You have three.

There aren't too many other people in the world who, over three decades of his career, have managed to stop Kusturica from making the noise he wants to. And he has always tended to concern himself with things he was supposed to be quiet about: ethnic violence, incest, Communism. His central characters have often been on the margins: gypsies and Jews and Muslims, the poor and the disenfranchised, the crippled and the simple; accidental dissidents, musical thieves, amoral outlaws, mystified children.
This sounds depressing, but these are not movies that will corroborate the fear of the unconverted, that all European art films are plodding and pretentious. Kusturica's impulsive self has served him better in his art than in his politics: his recognizable stamp is one of frenzied, raucous energy. No matter how brutal his subject, the movies are stuffed with joy, animated by screwball antics. Above all, there is always a riot of music. When there's a scene in a Kusturica movie without a brass band somehow involved, one is probably not far behind. Meanwhile, Animals tromp around everywhere, inserting themselves in the action with great persistence: magical turkeys, levitating fish, thieving elephants, marauding bears, phalanxes of geese. A tender dialogue between lovers is likely to include a dog insistently tearing up a pillow just behind them. You could watch a scene of two men talking to each other in the middle of a war zone five times before noticing that during the conversation one of the men is casually shining his shoes with a wildly protesting cat.

His one American-made film, Arizona Dream (1993), was a financial failure, though one that attracted a certain cult following. (Starring Johnny Depp, Jerry Lewis and Faye Dunaway, it includes an extraordinary scene with Depp and Lewis dressed up as Eskimos speaking a mock-Inuit language with subtitles.) Today, Kusturica admits to no particular intention to break into the American mainstream market. It's not that he hasn't had his chances. After the success of Black Cat, White Cat, American producers and actors came knocking again, but the projects – a Sean Penn-produced version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel 'The Autumn of the Patriarch', to star Marlon Brando, a 'Crime and Punishment' in Brighton Beach with Johnny Depp as a Raskolnikov who plays bass in a punk band, an adaptation of the D. M. Thomas novel 'The White Hotel' for which Nicole Kidman was eager to have the lead role – never went anywhere beyond the planning stage, despite how much the Hollywood heavyweights wanted to work with him.
Kusturica has never gotten along particularly well with the men with the money in Los Angeles and New York, and his new film, Life is a miracle has no release planned in the United States. He tends to shoot over absurdly long periods, rewriting and reimagining the movie up to the last minute. He tends to discourage producers from imagining that they might have anything at all to do with the work of art. And he tends to tell powerful people what he thinks of them. What he has thought hasn't always been particularly friendly.
'What you have now is a Hollywood that is pure poison' Kusturica says. 'Hollywood was a central place in the history of art in the 20th century: it was human idealism preserved. And then, like any great place, it collapsed, and it collapsed into the most awful machinery in the world. Why don't I see a Frank Capra today? Because people aren't like this anymore? People haven't changed that much in 60 years.'
Kusturica shot Life is a miracle which is a little like his own Capra film, in western Serbia, and when he was through making the movie, he decided to make a village out of nothing in just about the same spot. He has said that he decided to build the hilltop retreat (including a small restaurant, guest house, cafe, art gallery, underground cinema and Orthodox church as well as 25 abandoned houses he bought and transported to the site) because he lost his city in the war and so wanted to build his own; he has also said that the village itself is the best film he has ever made.
In December, looking out on the place he created – a set of simple wooden constructions along a single main drag covered in snow – he said: 'I'm fed up with democracy. In a democracy, people vote for the mayors. I wanted to build a city where I will choose the citizens.' (He was partly joking, but only partly.) A few days later, he added: 'I want to preserve something, and also to build something new – to build something for people, not for a nation, with no borders and no prejudice. Something against this idiocracy, against the mass product, which is the sign and symbol of all the world today.'
As you look down on the Serbian countryside from the small peak the village is built on, however, it's hard not to think of borders. Kusturica's town lies only a few miles from the frontier of the Bosnian Serb portion of Bosnia, and not very far from Sarajevo. But although he may be happy here, a short distance from his birthplace, he won't be taking any trains back home. He has not been in Sarajevo since 1992, and he says he will never go back.
Underground was defined by a dark basement, but most of Life is a miracle takes place in soft, comforting outdoor light, with great attention to the landscape; it's a resolutely above-ground movie. Luka, a Serbian engineer who is building a rail line connecting Bosnia and Serbia, refuses to believe that war is coming. After his son Miloš is drafted into the army by the Serbian side and then captured by the Bosnian military, Luka is offered Sabaha, a Bosnian Muslim, as a hostage to exchange for Miloš. But Luka and Sabaha begin to cling to each other as the war escalates, baffled by the hatred around them, and they fall in love. As the movie proceeds, its heroisms and villainies are spread out over the nations: there are Serbian characters who are murderous, greedy criminals, but also Serbs who are honorable, virtuous strivers; Bosnian Muslim characters are both innocent victims and casual killers. Intermixing the tendentious and the generous, it's both a macabre and a hopeful piece of art, classic melodrama and lunatic comedy at once.
The movie, however, doesn't seem to have changed anyone's mind. Life is a miracle wasn't much noticed in any of the former Yugoslav republics other than Serbia. In the rest of Europe, the film's reception was warm, with some seeing a move toward reconciliation; the French edition of Premiere magazine called it 'probably the softest and most optimistic' of Kusturica's movies. But it has hardly swayed anyone who felt strongly about Underground. Kusturica's fans and enemies have already chosen sides. To his critics, Kusturica's failure to single out Serbian leaders for blame demonstrates an inexcusable moral blindness. To his admirers, it speaks to his humane refusal to see people as anything other than individuals.
For his part, Kusturica says he is undaunted by his critics and has no interest in being instructed on how to make art. 'My purpose is to make a movie to make you warm,' he says. 'To give you some heat. Now, this rational world has become a place where only what is cool is good.' He adds, 'Do you cut the movie on the basis of the beat of modernity or the basis of the beat of your own heart?' According to Nele Karajlić, who has become one of Kusturica's closest artistic partners over 20 years, 'What Emir always does is put the human being in the center. That's what he cares about. Politics, nationality, war – these are mise en scene, that's all. I remember he called me on the phone and told me the story of the guy in Life is a miracle – you know, it's a true story, it really happened, this man and woman together – and we made it into a song. And I tell you, for us, this song, this movie, it felt like a window in this windowless room we had been stuck in, this bloody Balkan room without any exit, and we recognized a way out. We recognized we can continue to live.'

Dan Halpern has written for The New Republic, Travel & Leisure and other publications. This is his first article for the magazine.

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