The Tales of Mokra Gora. A Futurist, Emir Kusturica

19 June 2016
The Tales of Mokra Gora. A Futurist, Emir Kusturica

Emir Kusturica lthough already in his sixties, Emir Kusturica shows no sign of slowing down, working to the point of exhaustion film after film, running his own rural mini-state in the village of Mećavnik, and organising several international music festivals. As well as finding himself the centre of scandal on an all too regular basis — for not being allowed into Ukraine; for finding a reason not to take a new movie to Cannes; for opening a concert in Paris with the Russian national anthem. Snob met up with the maestro to talk about his latest projects.

Snob magazine

Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Words: Ilya Leutin

In the historical part of Belgrade, in a small three-storey classic Mediterranean-style house, you will find Rasta International, the Kusturica family’s production company. Pre-war mansions like these tend to be known as “villas”, and are typically given female names. This is also the HQ of the annual Bolshoi Festival of Russian Music, held in mid-July in the village of Mokra Gora, near the Bosnian border, in the ethno-village of Mećavnik, built by film director Emir Kusturica. The festival brings together young musicians from the most remote corners of Russia and Serbia to compete in performing classical works by Russian composers.

A small portico is filled with midday sun, the front door of the villa is open, and in a hallway leading to stairs to the second floor is a niche with three compact shelves, holding 15 awards — two Palme d’Or from Cannes, in red velvet boxes; one Gold Lion (from the Venice Film Festival); and a glass box containing a Luchino Visconti Award. One of the Palmes d’Or, from last century, looks worn, with one of the petals about to come loose and fall to the floor. Next to me the maestro is waiting for a Serbian TV crew, who want to film a one-minute commentary from Emir to do with the Festival: I let them go first. The cameraman examines the shelf by the stairs and turns to his fellow journalist:

— Would you like a shot of yourself with the Palme d’Or?

— Are you crazy? That would be like acting in a strange wedding dress. A bad omen.

Nana Kusturica, director of the Festival, interrupts us.

— The professor (Kusturica) is editing all morning. You’ve got 10 minutes.

Professor Kusturica comes down the stairs and the first floor, so quiet and sunny minute ago, bursts into life. After a quick chat in the garden with the TV guys, the maestro goes into the room where I’ll be conducting the interview, throws one leg over the other and asks Nana to make a cup of black coffee.

Photo provided by press office:
Emir Kusturica and the No Smoking Orchestra at last year’s Bolshoi Festival

— Shall we speak English? You speak a bit of Russian, I speak a bit of Serbian, but English would be preferable, no?

— Let’s do this: you put your questions in Russian, and I’ll answer them in Serbian. And we’ll just see what happens.

— OK. Let’s start with the Bolshoi Festival. Cinema and music — are they two distinct worlds for you?

— Jorge Luis Borges said that all arts aspire to become music. Everything that exists in the world of art has, at its core, the desire to take its own form and turn this into a musical effect. I think, if we’re talking about film, then we can find various similar musical forms there. And I have no doubt that we will, at some point in the future, listen to a symphony orchestra through some kind of special glasses designed to generate an image, synthesized from sound.

— You’re talking like an early 20th-century futurist.

— I think this is possible, because film and music are so close to each other. I would never have been able to establish a festival like this in Belgrade if I had not found Mećavnik. Mokra Gora was, in fact, a no man’s land, belonging, historically, to neither Bosnia nor Serbia. In this “no man’s land” people were not making the big mistakes that they were in the big cities. Here, in Mokra Gora, you can take an all-round view, compare one festival with another, understand something, and return it to people through film or music. I think, on that basis, that through art, you prolong life. That’s why people come here, the reason our Russian brothers at Gazprom Neft help us to return something to people. Because not everything under the sun follows the laws of liberal capitalism. I see the main task of the Ministry of Culture like this: to help culture endure. The festival addresses this issue, and so all our guests leave with a strong sense of unity, of the synchronicity of film and music — the music that echoes from the hills; and nothing exists, except this, and nothing else matters.

— The academic environment — a quite morally corrupted place, don’t you find?

— Oh yes (laughs).

— How closely are you getting involved with the academic world of classical music?

— You know, every year throws up something or somebody new, which provides fuel for this world. Leaving aside for a moment the corrupt environment, you’ll notice a lot of young people who are just waiting to take their place and become famous. A mass of kids like this come here from small towns in Russia, Serbia and the Respublika Srpska. When we listened to Denis Matsuev, here on our hills, it seemed the performing arts could get no better than this; but I’m sure that one day someone will come along and achieve that, one or other of them. It was like that with me, when I was a young director. I’d be invited to festivals and they’d be like — “Look, this is the new Luchino Visconti, the new Fellini, the new this, the new that” — but, in truth, I always remained myself, as do many young directors and performers today. We have to believe in the dialectic, in the force of development. And for many young people, making the transition from a local stage to the hills of Mokra Gora only brings art closer to nature and makes the perception of this all the greater.

— In Serbia, people sing a lot in everyday life. Choral singing is fundamental to Russian music — a key element of it. Do you plan to have choirs or individual singers at the Festival?

— As regards choirs, we’ve no plans so far. Vocalists — yes, we’re going to bring in a few, but for now were more focused on violin and piano. In the future I plan to do some kind of cross-over, and we’ve already begun to make a move in this direction. Every year we take some old silent movie and ask the musicians to find and orchestrate a fragment of this. As a next step I would like to invite non-academic musicians: jazz and rock musicians who could, together with the orchestra, rethink and play classical pieces. I think such a combination could be exciting.

— The Bolshoi Festival is, first and foremost, a competition, with the three prize-winning places going to musicians on different instruments. How can you compare a violinist with a pianist?

— It all depends on the jury. In which context, we’re going to have to be a bit stricter and come up with some new rules for them. Going forward, we’re not going to be as liberal as we have been in the past.

— The Festival is growing. You’ve said somewhere that you plan to run four festivals, one for each season of the year.

— Yes, we still need a theatre festival and a literature festival. Which means we have plans for two further festivals.

— And how’s the editing going on your new film?

— It’s very heavy going and nerve-wracking; we’re trying to get the film finished for Cannes.

Do you not get the feeling, that this yearly rush for prizes — when you’re trying to get a film finished for Cannes or the Oscars, or a book for the Booker or the Pulitzer — make it impossible for anything major to emerge? An artist expects each of his projects to take at least a year.

— You, in fact, have been shooting your film “On the Milky Road” for what is already the fourth year. How are you finding that marathon distance?

— The problem is that production — the producing system — worldwide isn’t set up properly. Take Jonathan Franzen, my favourite contemporary American writer. He was writing his last novel for nine years. Gabriel García Márquez worked on “The Autumn of the Patriarch” for eight years. Today, when you make a film, you’re under pressure from all sides for in a way that, until quite recently, wasn’t the case in cinema. Film has become digital and that, of course, makes it easier; on the other hand, the change here is qualitative, but not essential. Either you need to continue building an image with your own hands, or you do it with computer graphics. If you haven’t got a huge production company behind you, and if you want to do it well, it demands much more in terms of time. This consumerist attitude to art — it’s the exact opposite of what an artist needs. Now, everything has to be “fine-packaged”. I remember when I went to America, Milos Forman told me: “You need to concern yourself with one thing only: don’t let them package you like a cheese and put you on the shelf.” And that’s the point, I think: the artist has become a courier, delivering the goods on time.

— Only in production, or is this something bigger, a wider cultural change? An artist is the sort of creature that resists his environment. The greatest and most forceful works, in fact, are produced contra to the prevailing environment.

— And who are the producers? Those trying to develop the most successful product in the least possible time at the lowest possible cost. The key issue here is always quantity and not quality. James Bond will still run in thousands of cinemas, even if the movie is very weak, and a huge number of people see it. With me and other directors, sticking to the old archetypes, the situation is somewhat different. I still have to fight to get onto the competition programme at Cannes, because I always show something that the public is not yet ready for, even if I’ve got Tarkovsky and Kubrick behind me. If we call to mind the good contemporary directors, we’d be counting lots of names, but if we try to recall a really good film, it’s all a lot more complicated. The main problems are, of course, lack of time and focusing on the market. The market has never had any influence on my films, ever, even when some of them have been successful. The only thing I’ve ever strived for is to warm people’s hearts, to relate deep human dramas and produce life-changing beauty.

Photo provided by press office:
A virtuoso performance from Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulović.

—.You don’t think the Hollywood system you’re talking about is in agony? These days it’s driven by teenage taste, and that changes at lightning speed.

— Yes, the Hollywood system has already metastasised.

— I would go further. The two-and-a-half-hour film format no longer matches our perception. It was just like that, once upon a time, in music, when the sonata form ceased to dominate. Internet videos, on the one hand, and serials, on the other, are all demonstrating that consciousness is changing, and needs something else.

— There’s a big battle going on, like the battles of the gods in the Roman Empire, before it adopted Christianity. Today, there are many means of self-expression, but the big question is — whether cinematography will remain cinematography? I honestly doubt it. People are driven by TV. When you go to Belgrade to watch some good film, the audience in the auditorium are all talking on their phones and sending SMS messages, throughout the entire screening. That’s XXI-century man today: always online, having lost any sense of time. He has to choose which of these to align with: those laughing at something light and short, put out a moment ago on YouTube, or those who go to the cinema to see a bigger picture of human life, exposing drama and making you think.

— And then there are those series drawing interesting writers and good actors from mainstream cinema.

— Yes, series are gaining more ground because you can watch them at home, enjoying solitude or the company of friends. In addition to which, the series often have at their heart better-developed conflicts in comparison to film, which has come a long way from 90 minutes, to two hours, to two hours fifteen minutes — until adverts, ultimately, didn’t squeeze them into 20 seconds. And now, when the public has the opportunity to try different formats according to their taste, it’s very interesting to offer them a three-hour film. My last picture runs to three hours, as it happens, and I think this is an interesting and fairly new concept in terms of time, with no relationship to standard commercial cinema — which, too, is now changing. It’s changing as a result of many and varied objectives relating, fundamentally, to the crux of what modern technology can do, and what the public wants to see.

— If you were an up-and-coming director today, would you be filming serials?

— If I didn’t have awards from Cannes, Venice or Berlin — I most likely would film them, because in that format you have plenty of time. These days it’s all compacted not in terms of human biological limitations, but in terms of getting the information out there before the viewer gets bored and starts talking on his phone. Over the last 10 years — and there’s sociological data confirming this — young people have preferred to watch films at home, precisely because at home they can take a break, on their phone or with something else. This is an outright insult to the theatrical tradition, from the ancient Greeks through the first Parisian cinemas to the most luxurious Los Angeles multiplexes and, really, shows that the structure has collapsed. Why? Because — it’s a new time, new people. Every minute, millions of people all over the world are online, and that number is growing. If you think about it, it’s safe to say that the cinematography I’m associated with will soon become the same sort of thing that opera is now — that is, every city will have one multiplex that people will go to in order to watch something or other vintage while, at the same time, the majority will be watching new stuff over the Internet, on TV, in home cinemas, or something else.

— Maybe festivals will remain somewhere people come to watch films together? Festivals have a major communications function.

— If we look at Belgrade, there are now two or three multiplexes in shopping malls, and the film schedules in these are like any other goods offered for sale. If you go there, you won’t be comfortable because nobody there is paying proper attention to what’s happening on screen. And this is precisely how the potential of film is being run down and wasted: because it’s based on the collective emotions being exchanged between the audience and the screen. It’s for precisely that reason that festivals are a good thing, when two or three thousand people are laughing or crying together. Anything funny is even funnier, anything sad — even sadder. If what we see on screen is eight times greater than how we perceive it to be, in reality, then a good close-up makes a portrait eight times more effective than it is in real life, and a bad one — eight times worse. And even if these proportions change, we don’t know, actually, what’s going to happen, and how. As you said, film is made up of many genres and formats, and good directors are moving over to serials, which still have a cinematographic basis that’s already missing in many 90-minute films, where you leave the auditorium and think, that film really wasn’t bad. But once you get home you can’t remember anything about what happened — which means it was made by a good craftsman, with the ability to hold your attention for an hour and a half, but no more than this. And that’s far from being the cinematography I trained in.

— There is a saying, that behind every great man you will find a great woman. And the first time I saw your wife Maya six years ago — I didn’t know she was your wife — I was literally bowled over: the fantastic beauty and charisma of the woman ...

— Let me call her now.

— Is it true that she’s the leader in your family?

— Let’s just say — Maya is a very strong woman.

— How’s she coping with this newspaper gossip about your affair with Monica Bellucci?

— Me and Maya have been sharing everything for more than 40 years, and nothing can break our relationship except the two of us, ourselves. There’s not a single person who could come between us. Maya is one of those people you don’t meet that often in life: she’s not only a beautiful woman, but also unbelievably intelligent. You see things differently at various times of your life, and have different expectations. At the moment, in the final third of our relationship, it’s very important to me to be beyond emotion and to share the knowledge that life gives us. It is not often you can share them with a beautiful woman. And I’m not, in any sense, talking about Monica.

— How was it, by the way — that new experience of working extensively with an actor? What did Monica teach you?

— Monica, in my film, expresses my view of what an archetypal woman looks like. In which context, she more than meets my demands in terms of her sexuality and sensuality. Added to which, she matches the ideal of most men — even now, when the world has changed and family and other values are completely ruined, you always run the risk of restricting yourself, getting really stuck in a rut. “On the Milky Road” is a classical film, very intense and, I hope, disturbingly beautiful. Monica put her heart and soul into her work; I would say she is one of those people who puts art above their personal life and views it almost in religious terms. The three years she has dedicated this work testify to that. And I think she has done something that has never been done before.

— It’s interesting that, three years ago, at one perfect moment, you said to your wife: “You know, I’ve thought of a movie ... and now I want to invite Monica Bellucci to appear in it, what do you think? And, well ... I’ll also be appearing ... And the plot ... me and Monica will be lovers.” It’s not quite the same as when you’re an actor and you are invited to play a role. How did your wife respond to this?

— No no, it wasn’t even my decision. I had to appear in this film. The film grew out of some shorts I’d already filmed. It was about religion, and as it happens I’m working on these right now, in order to include it in the story, along with new episodes. The first part is called “Either ... or ...”, the second — “Ring of war”, and the third — “My Life”. All three stories are based on major conflicts that have taken place in real life. The first, the story of a woman who falls in with a family from a refugee camp, is Monica’s character, very complex; she escapes from an English general, because she has been spying for the Serbs in the Croatian part of Krajina. The General wants to kill her, she hides, and meets the milkman, a man who comes to this place for milk for soldiers from the occupied territory. Feelings develop between them. The second — real — story happens during the Russian—Afghan war. A soldier feeds a snake, which then saves this soldier’s life when his entire unit is killed by the enemy. And the third story tells the tale of how me and Monica are saved from English commandos, who want to return her to London, into the hands of their general. Everybody dies, in the end, I’m the only one who survives, and I become a monk.

— The screenplay for the short from which the feature-length film was developed was written by your daughter Dunja. Why did you not want to continue working with her as screenwriter?

— Dunja is a good angel, creating warmth and atmosphere in our family. The first short was scripted by her, yes, but I involved her to an extent in working on the major script, it’s just that she doesn’t like talking about it. She’s a very modest girl, doesn’t like to appear in public. Unlike me (laughs).

— In my imagination you used to appear as a fighter against capitalism, against commercialism. And at the same time, a couple of years ago I was at the opening of Andrićgrad, your stone city, coming down and afterwards. And what do I see there, as I’m walking along the street — cafés, restaurants, hotels, boutiques. All so that some could consume while others made money.

— Well they didn’t make that much money, but no matter.

— But the emphasis on consumerism was very strong. That is, you get the impression not of a cultural but a commercial island, between the two banks of the very poor town of Visegrad. And in the centre of the city is the gilded statue of Ivo Andric, everywhere the sense of your character. All in all, the feeling in the town is very authoritarian.

— Let me tell you something. The layout of the old Greek city served as the template for this town. Everything that was there in the Greek city can be found in Andrićgrad. There’s no difference. Except perhaps the money’s different. The money circulating here is barely enough to support an independent existence and to accommodate guests, who we invite at their own cost. Nobody’s making any money.

— I’m not just talking about money now. More about influence. Your influence and character in this place are authoritarian. You’re practically a dictator. But trying to pass for a revolutionary.

— I’m no revolutionary. George Soros — he’s the one who’s a revolutionary. He’s the Bolshevik, not me. I’m all for change, but not external change, more — mental. In all other respects, I want to live in a Christian cultural environment, in brotherhood with other cultures. But revolutionaries like Gavril Princip I respect because had he not killed the Archduke the last feudal (serf-owning) system in Europe would never have collapsed. We are all for revolution, which is the essence of development, but not like George Soros, who is creating revolution all around the world. He tried to generate a revolution in Russia — that failed, Egypt is destroyed, Gaddafi was overthrown, Iraq is destroyed, and Serbia very nearly. Mental evolution, you know? I don’t even think about revolution. Anything but revolution.

— Or maybe you’re a Fitzcarraldo, driving the ship onto the rocks? And the people blindly following you are — Indians. They need something quite different, their mentality isn’t something you take into account. They want to walk around your cultural island as they would a shopping mall, to “talk on their phones” and absorb some fictional culture.

— But afterwards they return to their day-to-day lives, fired-up by something completely out of the ordinary for them, something that has an impact on their lives. I hope that’s the case. At least, that’s what I think when I see them coming and going. And the most important thing — is that they always come back.

Photo: Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images
Monica Bellucci and Emir Kusturica in Visegrad on the eve of the Kustendorf Festival.

At these words Dunja, Emir’s daughter, enters the room. Having agreed to meet earlier, we hug. Professor Kusturica kisses his daughter and announces:

— Enough, I’ve got to work. And I’ve already said far too much as it is — and after drinking a glass of water in the kitchen he goes upstairs into the cutting room.

I hold back, to chat with Nana and Dunja. I compliment Dunja on her light summer look, comprising a straw hat and a telnyashka.

— Ha-ha, it’s an old telnyashka of Emir’s, from the nineties—- she says in reply.

She has a certain attachment to old things of her father’s. She often drives around Belgrade in an old boxy Mercedes her father bought while filming “Underground”.

I instantly remember that same telnyashka, it having been replicated in the famous portrait where Emir, in semi-profile, is holding a cigar in his mouth and looking mysterious, almost incredulous. In the wake of this photo I remember two other telnyashkas associated with the maestro. One of them belonging to Alexei Oktyabrinovich Balabanov during the winter he came to the Kustendorf Festival with his script about the young terrorist Joseph Dzhugashvili. Alexei Oktyabrinovich, feeling his health would not allow him to make a film in such circumstances, offered Emir Kusturica joint authorship. The second telnyashka was worn by the maestro Kusturica himself at the No Smoking Orchestra’s concert in Samara, shouting from the stage that “this song is dedicated to our Russian brothers in Ukraine.” Followed by the Russian march, “Farewell of Slavianka”, played twice. These telnyashkas reveal to me part of an old, already distant, ghostly world that existed once, but is now no more, with no sailors storming the Winter Palace, where all that is left is a summer world of light maidenly beauty.

— That telnyashka looks much more elegant on you — I tell Dina.

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