Last month I was invited on a press trip to Serbia. The whole thing sounded great; free accommodation, free food, free travel. I said yes, obviously. But there was a catch; it involved an interview with the film director Emir Kusturica.
Now, the first thing you should know about Emir Kusturica is that he’s huge, a proper man-mountain. His hands look like they could do more damage than your average battle tank, and at 6’3″, he must be at least a head taller than me. Not that I’m thinking this lucidly when finally the interview moment comes. Before I begin my questions, I’m more than a little scared that, at any moment, he might grab my throat and make himself two heads taller than me.
Because the second thing you should know about Emil Kusturica is that he is, to put it mildly, a volatile character. The third thing, which concerns me more than it does you, is that he is glaring at me and the two other interviewers in a terrifying way.
He has granted this group interview to promote his film festival, an annual booze-up on the mountainous border between Serbia and Bosnia. It’s about as far from a red carpet affair as you get. There are no tickets, and no clear aim at making a profit. The point is, he insists, to draw attention to young film-makers who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to get their work shown.
But aside from those in competition for prizes, I don’t think many people are here to watch films. No, the draw is the place, and by extension Kusturica himself. Because Küstendorf – a hamlet of comically cute wooden houses – is entirely Kusturica’s creation.
Kusturica is best known over here as the auteur behind the Palme d’Or-winning films When Father was away on Business (1985) and Underground (1995). His early work is tremendous; an operatically weird blend of magic realism, punk aesthetics and Yugoslav history.
But after Underground was released, his critical standing took a nosedive. Commentators including Bernard-Henri Lévy and Slavoj Žižek slammed him for a perceived bias towards ethnic Serbs in the Yugoslavian civil war, and to cut a long story short, he’s been voicing his antipathy towards the west ever since. It’s little surprise, then, that his films now attract much less attention than his behaviour.
He has slowed down his film-making in favour of touring with his band, writing books and acting. And now, he has turned his hand to town planning. When looking for locations for his 2004 film Life is a Miracle, he wanted an idealised Serb village. But no existing town suited – so he built one himself. After shooting finished, he kept building until he had a town complete with restaurants, bars and a cinema. Küstendorf, as he named it, is frankly bizarre. Think Poundbury, Balkan-style.
But he didn’t stop there. Last year, he unveiled Andrićgrad, his newer, bigger and even weirder project just over the border in Bosnia. This walled complex is essentially Saint Petersburg meets Bicester Village, as imagined by a Saudi property developer.
Walking us around the town, Kusturica explains his masterplan. There are already cafés, restaurants, a cinema and a bookshop. But all this is just phase one. Later this year, he plans to open the Serb answer to the Goethe Institute – a university dedicated to film making and, as he puts it, ‘taking another angle’ on Balkan history.
Kusturica’s version of history is starkly different from ours. He is (I’m pretty sure, wrongly) convinced that the ‘revisionist’ west blames Serbia for starting the first world war. He argues that Kosovo was ‘brutally cut off’ from Serbia by NATO. And he has stressed that Serbs were not the only nationality to have committed atrocities during the civil war.
Born to a non-observant Muslim family in Sarajevo, he has been accused of abandoning his Bosniak roots. Consequently, his name is by all accounts dirt in his native city these days, and Andrićgrad’s location is like a red flag to those who see him as a Serb nationalist. It takes up a good chunk of Višegrad, the town where Ratko Mladic’s paramilitaries massacred upwards of 3,000 Muslims in 1993.
But for all his provocative gestures, I don’t think he’s prejudiced. He has a (perhaps justifiable) complex that Serbia is still perceived as the bogeyman of Europe, and mourns the loss of pan-national multiculturalism and open-mindedness in the former Yugoslavia. In short, he believes the disintegration of the communist state was one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.
He is not alone. At Belgrade airport I got picked up by a driver who set the tone of conversation for the next few days: ‘It is not much beauty here. Very desperate country. Very poor people. Things better in socialist times.’ Virtually every English-speaking, educated Serb I speak to talks of little else but history and politics. And the leitmotif of this is an overwhelming nostalgia for Yugoslavia. People talk about ‘socialist times’ as heaven on earth.
One girl I speak to, a former politics student, tells me this: ‘Things were good with communism. You could have anything. All you traded was the right to think.’ I asked whether she would trade it back. Of course she would, she said. She was tired of thinking.
I somehow doubt Kusturica would make a similar trade-off. He is annoyed at what he sees as Serbia’s antipathy, he tells us. Locals are reluctant to get behind his construction projects; the people, he claims, conform to an Ottoman-era saying that ‘it is better to sit for free than to work for free’. As for his many critics from outside, he can only sneer. ‘Before the war, majority of the population were Muslims. Now they are, um, not. Now we [build Andrićgrad] and the elites they say “this is the triumph of genocide” or something ridiculous.’
He warns that this ‘political correctness’ will bring down European civilisation. Part of this he attributes to the EU, of which he is no fan. It is ‘a non-existent entity’, he says, ‘to me, it is just Germany feeling it must control the rest of Europe.’
I want to ask him whether he feels the controversy surrounding Underground ruined his career. But before I can finish the question, he crushes his hand into a fist and shakes. I close my eyes, waiting for the blow.
‘Oofff, ŽIŽEK!’ he roars. ‘Žižek comes from Slovenia, a country with no philosophical tradition’. This is evidence, in his eyes, of political correctness gone mad. Žižek, according to Kusturica, is only popular due to his YouTube-friendly rants. ‘This is what you need in the west, always somebody modern… but there is nothing underneath.’ Besides, he’s got be a crank, insists Kusturica, ‘he says my movie is the worst movie ever made on the planet! How can [my films] be the worst in the world when there are Bernard-Henri Lévy’s movies? Even if I accept my movies are the worst movies in the world, there is Bernard-Henri Lévy, who is for sure worse.’ I laugh in agreement. Emir Kusturica laughs too. And, crucially, he does not rip my head off.