While I was waiting to launch the latest, extended version of my book on the film director Emir Kusturica at the Küstendorf film festival in January 2023, I wondered whether he would show up. The festival in Serbia is his pet project and he has to make time for all his guests.
Twenty-five years earlier, in 1998, a new publisher from London, Wallflower Press, was about to commission its first title. It was to be on the maverick Yugoslav filmmaker Kusturica; an eccentric decision, perhaps, to test British readers with such a controversial artist. The choice of an author was even more peculiar: the job was offered to me. I jumped at the opportunity.
After long-winded pussyfooting around his agent at the time, and a patient landline siege of his house in Brittany, I finally got through. It took six months of waiting, but once he started to talk, Emir made it worthwhile. He gave me the most insightful, breath-taking interview; I used every single word of his hour-long musings.
When my publisher read the first draft, he exclaimed, ‘Don’t get me wrong, your stuff is great, but each time I reach a Kusturica quote, it practically jumps at me from the page.’
Most cinemagoers react in the same way when they encounter Emir’s expressive, colourful, magic-realist cinema. The man made a reputation of not mincing his words and by not sparing the gaze of his camera lenses. At the time of the interview he had already completed three masterpieces, Time of the Gypsies (1988), Arizona Dream (1993) and Underground (1995), lived in four very different countries, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, the USA and France, and won a dozen awards, including two Palmes d’Or at Cannes, a Silver Lion in Venice and a Silver Bear in Berlin.
Working as a film critic through the 1990s and 2000s, I witnessed Emir’s rise from the front row. I have since lost track of many new talents, titles and waves of cinema, but I have carried Emir’s films with such a consistent passion that they remain etched in my memory. The rough intimacy of a childhood in Sarajevo’s pickpocketing suburbs in Do you remember Dolly Bell? (1981); a tense family drama set during Tito’s split from Stalin in 1948 in When Father was Away on Business (1985); a poor man’s version of The Godfather set in the Gypsy slums in Time of the Gypsies; a dreamy, nostalgic satire of Americana in Arizona Dream. They were all coming-of-age films packed with marginal characters stuck with backward technology and lowbrow existential dilemmas.
Underground was the pinnacle of its kind: a comic-book, slapstick guide through tragic historical events in Yugoslavia. The paradoxes of the civil war, and the post-Soviet transition from Communist nanny state to cut-throat gangster Capitalism, were best described with the aid of Kusturica’s favourite genre: tragicomedy. The same approach applied to the films that followed: Black Cat, White Cat (1998), his biggest box-office success, Life is a Miracle (2004), Promise Me This (2007) and On the Milky Road (2016).
My book, Notes from the Underground: The Cinema of Emir Kusturica (2001), turned out to be a success, receiving good reviews from Japan to the US. I gave an interview to the BBC, and Philip French of the Observer put it on his top five film books of 2001. For a moment, I also felt like a star. After a few years in the UK, that’s when I moved back to Belgrade. Emir did the same after a spell in France.
My book was translated into Serbian in 2006 and my publisher Wallflower decided to launch it in Cannes, where Emir was chairing the jury. The publisher had sent me 50 copies to give away and I already saw myself signing them for Salma Hayek and Naomi Campbell. That’s how, one fine day in Cannes, as I was strolling down La Croisette in my Sunday best, I bumped into Emir in his Pierre Cardin tuxedo surrounded by paparazzi.
The strongest compliment was yet to come: Emir’s gaze when we finally met in person. We embraced Hollywood style. I proudly pulled out the proof copy. The title in Serbian was changed to Emir Kusturica: The Cult of the Margin. He took it in both hands, pausing to look at his photo on the sleeve while Nikons clicked and flashlights blinded us. ‘Well done, mate!’, he proclaimed.
The media have routinely published photos of me with red eyes and a grey complexion looking like one of Emir’s gypsy thieves, but I unfortunately never saw the result of this triumphant photo-shoot.
Emir found his home in Serbia while shooting Life is a Miracle on Mokra Gora, which translates as ‘wet valley’. He saw a hill and exclaimed, ‘I’m gonna build a house there!’ The crew giggled, but it was Emir who had the last laugh. In 2006, when the film was released, I visited the site. By then he had completed a promenade, small church, spacious café, indoor pool and underground cinema, as well a cosy country house with fireplace and veranda.
There was nothing flashy or expensive on display, apart from an antique Leica camera that I noticed in Emir’s living room. His walls were hung with canvases painted by a surreal, imaginative Montenegrin artist, Vojo Stanić. Built mainly of wood from roof to floor, the house looked like a set for some spaghetti western.
Emir expanded the film set built for Life is a Miracle to include streets and squares named after his childhood idols, Bruce Lee and Diego Maradona, with guest houses, watermill, hairdresser, pastry shop and even a prison! Eventually a whole village called Drvengrad sprang up, complete with tennis courts, restaurants and a concert hall. Today, it can host up to 200 souls. ‘Usually citizens elect their mayor,’ Emir comments. ‘I am the only mayor who elects his citizens’.
In 2008, Emir established his Küstendorf boutique film festival in the village. With big film festivals, I always get nervous deciding what to see, but this was human-sized: three features, a few shorts and one concert per day. It does not have a separate VIP section, so people such as Johnny Depp, Abbas Kiarostami, Nikita Mikhalkov, Audrey Tautou, Zhang Yimou, Kim Ki-duk, Ruben Östlund and Paolo Sorrentino are sitting next to you at breakfast. I was there to celebrate Küstendorf’s first birthday in 2009, and next year it turns sweet sixteen. Like most of Emir’s anti-heroes, the festival itself has passed through a painful and exciting process of reaching maturity.
Time has passed quickly. My study on Emir, first published 22 years ago, has had two dozen launches in six countries but, for one reason or another, he has never attended. We broke this habit in October 2022 in Belgrade. The publisher took us both to dinner and I encountered a different person from the wild, confronting, uncontrolled man portrayed in the media; I met an informed, articulate, compassionate person, so astutely intuitive that he verges on clairvoyance. At 68, Emir gives an impression of a wise man who has gathered all sorts of spiritual insight and mundane knowledge.
He also showed up at the Küstendorf launch of my book in English on 27 January 2023, turning it into his own stand-up act. On February 10, we appeared together another time at the Belgrade National Library with the roles reversed. I tried to steal the show in speaking about his latest novel The Rebel Angel (2023), but it’s not easy to outsmart Emir. He boasts the rare privilege of being able to befriend his heroes, such as Maradona (a documentary Maradona by Kusturica, 2008), the former President of Uruguay, Pepe Mujica (a documentary El Pepe: A Supreme Life, 2018) and the Austrian writer Peter Handke (The Rebel Angel). In the past few months, I have finally been befriended by one of mine.
Photo of Emir Kusturica and Goran Gocic courtesy of the author