Re-creating a time of peace in the Balkans

Ariston Anderson

Sarajevo-born filmmaker Emir Kusturica is using the arts and architecture to re-imagine the Yugoslavia of his youth.

MOKRA GORA, SERBIA ā€” High in the mountains of Serbia sits a fairy-tale village full of wooden huts built in a style that hasn’t changed in 300 years. You’ll find French legend Isabelle Huppert and Cannes general delegate Thierry Fremaux hitting the slopes and Belgium’s Dardenne brothers discussing the origins of a story with a young director after screening their latest, “The Kid With a Bike.”

Iran-born “Persepolis” director Marjane Satrapi enjoys a cigarette at the Visconti restaurant, surrounded by adoring fan boys praising her new film, “Chicken With Plums.” Korean director Kim Ki-Duk, with a smile on his face, carries an intricate carving of a tree, the “Award for the Future Movie,” back to his cabin, and American director Abel Ferrara, after screening “4:44 Last Day on Earth,” dances to Balkan music till 2 a.m. while encircled by energetic film students.

In between everything, a bear of a man is running back and forth, shoelaces untied, hair askew. Emir Kusturica, director of the fifth annual Kustendorf Film and Music Festival, held here in January, doesn’t take a moment to pause, finding time each night to join the dancing-on-tables, Balkan-style parties that don’t wind down until dawn amid piles of empty raki glasses.

The Sarajevo-born director and darling of European cinema is best known for making surreal and darkly comedic films about the Balkans. He is also among the few filmmakers to have won the Palme d’Or twice at Cannes: for “When Father Was Away on Business,” a delicate film on life in communist Yugoslavia, and “Underground,” an ultimately antiwar film that reminisces about the trials of the former Yugoslavia. Kusturica has also received much heat over the years from native Bosnians for renouncing his Muslim roots in 1995 at the end of the Bosnian War, when he was baptized into the Serbian Orthodox Church. He has not since returned to Sarajevo.

Today, Kusturica identifies completely as a Serb, splitting his time for the last eight years between Paris and Kustendorf, the village inside Mokra Gora that he was inspired to build after filming “Life Is a Miracle” in the area. Through his work in portraying Serbia and creating arts and cultural projects such as the film festival, Kusturica has ensured his place in the canon of the Balkan country’s art. “He’s proof that it doesn’t matter where you come from,” said Slavko Stimac, who has played some of Kusturica’s most unforgettable characters. “You can make it if you have something to say.”

Kusturica has made it abundantly clear that his purpose in life goes well beyond that of making great cinema. At 57, he tours the world with his No-Smoking Orchestra, makes time to work on his fiction and maintains a side career as an actor. He has three films in development, all with French production attached, including a biopic on the Gypsy guitar prodigy Django Reinhardt and a Pancho Villa love story. Kusturica is hoping Benicio Del Toro will sign on for the lead, though he will start production in December with or without him.

But Kusturica’s real passion today lies in extending his cinema into real life through architecture and city planning. “It’s very important to have a place which is absolutely outside of any feelings of civilization,” he said in one of his rare instances of sitting down during the festival, inside his cozy library at Kustendorf. The room and its furnishings, as with the rest of the property, were built locally. Heavy wooden armchairs are surrounded by playful folkloric paintings. Just outside the library is a helicopter pad overlooking a range of snow-kissed mountains. “It’s a realized utopia.”