“The director they couldn’t quash“. Interview by Graham Fuller, September 1999

Emir Kusturica's noisy, eye-popping Gypsy comedy Black Cat, White Cat is his most life-affirming film yet.

As infectious as a movie gets, Emir Kusturica's gorgeously ramshackle Black Cat, White Cat is not only the comic follow-up to the Sarajevo-born, forty-four-year-old director's magical realist masterpiece Time of the Gypsies (1989) but a super-energized apolitical deposit to those who vilified his 1995 Golden Palm-winner Underground as being pro-Serb propaganda. Filmed on the Danube by Kusturica in 1997 after he reversed his decision to retire following the Underground furor, this latest Fellini-esque paean to his beloved Gypsies is a saga of two rival dynasties, an arranged marriage, and burgeoning young love. It features a train hijacking, a pig munching on an abandoned car, a coke-snorting gangster with a taste for zany Balkan techno, a singer who pulls nails from wood with her ass, a wedding sequence that tops The Deer Hunters, an omnipresent flock of geese, and some of the most fluid and Inventive filmmaking you'll ever see; it opens this month. I caught up with its largerthan-life maker in Italy, where he was touring with his drummer son's agit-rock band No Smoking.

  • Graham Fuller : NOW that Black Cat, White Cat is being released after the Kosovo war Instead of during it, it has a kind of after-the-fact talismanic optimism about it. Does that sit well with you ?
    • Emir Kusturica : Yeah. Even in Underground, which is a much more historical, political film, you get an idea of what I wanted to underline in Black Cat, White Cat - basically the hedonistic nature of the people living in Yugoslavia. With Black Cat, White Cat, I wanted to make another film about the character of the people I spent most of my time with when I was a child. I was raised in a middle-class family close to the place where the Gypsies lived 1), and I was always enthusiastic about their freedom, the way they accepted life, their direct connection to joy, and their strength and optimism. Gypsies have a very bad position in society because every middle-class mother-fucker likes to have somebody beneath him. If you go to the district in Skopje in Macedonia where the Gypsies live, you'll find a lot of people who hate them and who want nothing more than to be one step above them. I think this one-step-above mentality is a big part of the racism you see all over Europe. Any time in the history of Europe when Gypsies have been targeted, it has indicated that we are entering a new era in which totalitarian feelings are rising.
  • Do you see Gypsy culture as a kind of utopianism compared with other Balkan sensibilities ?
    • EK : Yeah, and the world needs utopias, because without them we are going to run out of power and die very soon. Gypsies have never caused people of other nations to suffer, and it's nonsense to suggest that they collaborated with the Serbs. Since they came to Europe over six centuries ago, they've survived without using the instruments of war that almost every European nation used. There are still around seven million Gypsies around the world, which is quite a big number given what happened to them 2). But they are a people who believe in beauty and reproducing themselves and who play fantastic music, and they have proved there are many possible ways of living and of organizing yourself. I'm not idealizing the existence of those Gypsies who live in incredibly bad conditions in Rome and Turin, but I know happy Gypsies, too.
  • Are you also drawn to Gypsies now because they are stateless, as in a sense you are yourself ?
    • EK : I feel this very closely. The other day I gave an interview to Portuguese television in a car and I discovered I'm most lucid when the landscape's moving. I'm a man without a country, travelling between Paris and New York and Belgrade and Montenegro. My roots are in Herzegovina, but I don't care about nationality. I care about higher values in human life.
  • Can you talk about Fellini's influence on your filmmaking ?
    • EK : Something I'm proud of is discovering the way this guy made his movies and that I can make mine in the same way. I'm using these little tricks, like a magician who sees one circus and goes into another to work. Hopefully, in my films you get excited by every character you meet, as you do in Fellini's. There's also that incredible architecture he created in his scenes and his kind of Mediterranean, pagan vision of life. Those are the major influences.
  • In Underground, you had a blaring brass band charging after the heroes, like a kind of crazy Greek chorus. In Black Cat, White Cat, it's a flock of geese. Why geese ?
    • EK : In Gypsy mythology, geese are the animals who flew the Gypsies over the ocean and into Europe, which I think is beautiful. Geese are so elegant and somehow so intelligent that between one and many geese there is incredible harmony, plus they bring a great dynamic to a scene. It's also like a color you need to bring to a painting from time to time - my movies are not just based on the commercial need to tell a story. I like repeating those kinds of colors or motifs because they please me.
  • The end of Black Cat, White Cat echoes the coda to Underground when the main characters - who die and are then resurrected - float off on a river bank that breaks from the mainland, in Underground was that a kind of wishful separation of a united Yugoslavia from the rest of Europe ?
    • EK : It's not a strict parallel - I just have a primal feeling about broken nations. Broken art, broken land - the thought of all that created much more than I was initially thinking. The place where we shot the island in Underground is one mile from where we filmed Black Cat, White Cat and one of the most beautiful and inspiring places on the Danube. There's a tragic fallout in Underground, but with Black Cat, White Cat, I came back to what could be a natural source of regenerating a certain power that the nation has, even though the film's about Gypsies.
  • There's a lot of confusion about where you stand politically. Do you want to clarify it ?
    • EK : Listen, I don't have any problem with my position. When Yugoslavia was being destroyed, I accused both our nationalistic leaders and other European leaders. But if you didn't scream slogans against (Serbian president Slobodan) Milošević when he first appeared, it was enough to tar you as pro-Milošević. The moment you don't instantly separate what's perceived to be good or evil - which is not something I accept as possible - you are aligned with one or the other. But you don't want to justify your position because if you do it just begins an endless process. So a lot of different stories have been created about me. Ever since I was very young, I've been contrary to the mainstream, contrary to everything. But I've never, as it's been alleged in some parts of Europe, been against humanity. I've always wanted to see my country, the events that unfold, and the whole planet in their full complexity, not from the ideological perspective our people were fed during the Communist era, which, I must be honest, introduced the tragedy to my country.
  • What are your thoughts about addressing Yugoslavia's tragedy head-on in a movie again ?
    • EK : After Underground, I felt like a victim of the European media's anathema because I was accused of being the very thing I was fighting against in my movie. But I'm thinking about making a new movie that starts with the bombing of Sarajevo and ends with the NATO bombing of Serbia. It's the idea that the beginning of one war leads to the beginning of another. As in Underground, I will place it all in the same frame, although for an artist to be politically clear - that's very difficult. For example, I'm very much behind (Milo) Djukanović3), but that does not mean I blindly accept everything he says. Personally, I just want to keep my eyes open, to keep my vision, which I would say is quite strong, and to be mentally healthy.
  • Have you completed your recent acting gig4) ?
    • EK : Yes. And I will probably be shocked when I see my talking head on the big screen. (laughs)

Interview by Graham Fuller, translation by Matthieu Dhennin

2) during the Holocaust
3) Montenegro's independent-minded president, an opponent of Milošević
4) In Patrice Leconte's film La Veuve de Saint-Pierre
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