He has worked with the likes of Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, Jerry Lewis and Iggy Pop. He has won countless film awards and is one of the best-known film directors in Europe. But at home in Serbia, Emir Kusturica uses his popularity to spread hardcore nationalism. Emir Kusturica’s films are colorful and emotional, built around the daily lives of normal people. In his early work, children are the main characters and he often explores the lives of Roma or gypsies, as they are often called.
Kusturica, born in 1954 in the then-Yugoslav city of Sarajevo, works to blur the borders between the rational and irrational. His intellectually incomprehensible scenes in “Time of the Gypsies” and “Black Cat, White Cat” mystify yet fascinate international filmgoers.
Most Kusturica movies are set in his native territory: the former Yugoslavia, southeast Europe and the Balkans. As his films portray them, the people in these areas are completely endearing but also a bit eccentric. And they tend to be impulsive, which sometimes leads to manslaughter and murder.
Kusturica has no objection to this wild side. In “Underground” (1995), he made it clear that he did not believe the barbarity of the 1990s Balkan wars resulted from nationalistic politics: Butchering your neighbors just happens to be the logical consequence of the backward local culture.
Upon closer examination, the rest of the Nemanja Kusturica’s oeuvre – his name as of his Orthodox christening in 2005 – espouses some equally problematic political views. For Kusturica, being Serbian is an incredibly important part of his self-conception. In an interview with Croatian magazine Globus, the son of Bosnian-Muslim parents explained how he found out that the Kusturicas were a family deeply rooted in the Serbian Orthodox tradition. “I have completed the circle,” he said, explaining his conversion.
No wonder Kusturica left his native Sarajevo when Bosnia broke away from Yugoslavia in 1992. He moved to the former Yugoslav (now Serbian) capital Belgrade while the former Yugoslav (now Serbian) army waged a ghastly war in Bosnia in close cooperation with nationalist militias. It is also no wonder that Kusturica stayed away from the many Belgrade demonstrations against the Bosnia war held throughout the 1990s. He did, however, show up at the main rally against independence for Kosovo on Feb. 21, 2008, the region that formerly belonged to Serbia. The director addressed tens of thousands of diehard reactionaries and ultranationalists, likening his political opponents to animals.
“Where are the local mice who tell lies for money and say we are nothing and nobody,” he asked. “Where are they tonight? In their mouse holes! Where are the people who think that the Kosovo myth is a Hollywood myth? In their mouse holes! Which myth do we share? The Kosovo myth.” Electrified, the crowd chanted “Emire, Srbine” (Emir, Serb). The scene gave a sense of how easily nationalism can be repeatedly activated in poverty-stricken Serbia – and the role that stars like Kusturica can play in the process.
In the 20 years since Slobodan Miloševic was elected president of Serbia, the 18 since the beginning of the Yugoslav wars and the nine since the Serbian strongman was toppled, Serbia has become one of the poorest countries in Europe. The population lives from hand to mouth and university graduates leave the country as soon as they receive their diplomas, never looking back.
Kusturica is an affluent, well-traveled and internationally respected figure. Much of the Serbian population looks up to him as a role model. And yet, he uses this status to popularize a platform that puts him on the stage with Miloševic and former Bosnian Serb politician Radovan Karadžic – and not just symbolically.
To Kusturica, the former president is a hero and an innocent victim. He also sympathizes with Karadžic, the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs in the civil war – the man who the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague says was behind the massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica. The director readily shares Karadžic’s beliefs, in Serbia and elsewhere.
When he isn’t busy making films or addressing nationalist rallies, Kusturica plays rhythm guitar in the No Smoking Orchestra. The high-speed Balkan folk band’s repertoire includes “Wanted Man,” a song dedicated to Karadžic, who was arrested last summer in Belgrade. He had been living there under the pseudonym “Rašo Dabic” since the mid-1990s:
“And when I find myself
Locked in prison
Mother Mary comes to me.
Oh Mother Mary, who will be
Wanted Man instead of me?”
At live concerts, the band often adds lines to the song that it does not print in the No Smoking Orchestra’s CD booklet:
“If you don’t like Dabic Rašo
You can kiss our ass.”
Taking advantage of Kusturica’s film success, the No Smoking Orchestra plays to enthusiastic audiences around the world. In Berlin, Paris, London and Buenos Aires, cheering masses sport the Serbian eagle on their T-shirts, wave the old Yugoslav flag – without having any idea of what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s.
Overtly, Kusturica does not seem to take his admiration for Karadžic very seriously. “Does it really bother you that Karadžic interests and fascinates me?” he asked in the Globus interview. “When you watch a cowboy film, whose side are you on? I am fascinated by Karadžic, alias Dabic, because he is an outlaw.”
Yet, Karadžic is responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of civilians in the war in Bosnia. Does Kusturica really think he is not a criminal? Is he just an outlaw – ultimately a positive character whose side we would also be on if the director just made a film about him? No. Karadžic and the chauvinist Greater Serbia he has advocated since the early 1990s are much more important to Kusturica. And the filmmaker continues to support nationalist causes in various ways such as through the recent exhibition he organized for Russian painter Andrei Budayev.
Karadžic is one of the central, positive figures in Budayev’s work. The Russian, who is often portrayed as an anti-Putin dissident, portrays the former Bosnian Serb leader as a hero who sacrificed himself for the cause of Orthodoxy.
In contrast, Budayev presents other international political figures, such as George W. Bush, Madeleine Albright and Javier Solana, as a clan of crazy, sadistic criminals in Nazi uniforms. They are a pack that pursues one goal with as much brutality as possible: to hack up Serbia in the most literal sense of the word.
Kusturica sponsored the Budayev exhibition last August in the village of Drvengrad (Wooden Town), which he happens to own. In the pastoral village, schoolchildren and other visitors receive a gentle introduction to the ultra-rightwing Serbian worldview. The village is home to a charming wooden Orthodox church, a movie theater, several restaurants, shops and stands with regional products like plum brandy, jam, juice and berries. Kusturica is also the director of the Mokra Gora national park that surrounds the village in western Serbia.
At the end of the day, the extremism of Kusturica’s political views remain largely unknown – leaving fans of his films open to thoughtlessly consuming his underlying far-right convictions. His engrossing dream imagery, for example, often masks the fact that the wildest, most Balkan and most uncivilized characters in his movies are always Roma. Kusturica consistently uses this oppressed minority as a surface on which to project his disturbing political-ideological fantasies. It might be tasteless or racist but the filmmaker doesn’t care.