From Emir to Enemy, and Back Again: My Changing Reactions to Emir Kusturica

New Yorker Films/CIBY

It seems as if some countries are only allowed to have one internationally famous filmmaker, responsible for representing the entirety of that country’s cinematic output. The Netherlands gets Paul Verhoeven. Turkey gets Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Greece gets Yorgos Lanthimos, and Hungary gets Béla Tarr. Hell, ask a committed Western cinephile about Indian filmmakers—a country of over a billion people and an obsessively strong cinema culture—and most will only be able to name Satyajit Ray. For those of us coming from the lands of the former Yugoslavia, we don’t even get to share the privilege of our breakup allowing us multiple famous filmmakers. Nope, we’re still mostly stuck with one name: the immensely controversial Emir Kusturica.

I used to almost blindingly adore all of Kusturica’s films. As a child, Black Cat, White Cat (1998) was one of my favorite films, whilst Underground (1995) and When Father Was Away on Business (1985) provided two key touchstones for me during my formative late-teenage years as a film obsessive. As the sole Yugoslav filmmaker whose films were easily available in the West, he felt like the torch keeper, the one true representative of all that is good and whole about our cinema. For years, he was the one Yugoslav filmmaker I pressed upon decadent, capitalist Westerners to show how great our old communist life was—our sole ray of energy and fire.

But what happens when you start looking closer at someone’s films, and digging deeper into their implications and their contexts, and the façade starts to fall?

It surprised me to find out that Slavoj Žižek, the most high profile Balkan intellectual in the West, absolutely despises Kusturica’s films, and most notable scholars of Balkan culture have reservations about him as well. At some point, his films began to negatively coalesce into a complex cauldron of decaying Titoist communism, ethnic identity, and resurgent nationalism that formed much of the intellectual backdrop of the wars and genocide that annihilated the Yugoslav dream in the ‘90s. This coincided with Kusturica’s own shift from a pan-Yugoslav filmmaker of Bosnian descent into a purely Serbian filmmaker. With this shift, a filmmaker with formerly no specific ethnic background, in a country whose ideology was built on pan-nationalism, became one overtly aligned with Serbian identity and the politics of ethnic exclusion. For many people in the former Yugoslavia, this was a betrayal of his roots.

Born in Sarajevo in 1954 to a secular, Bosnian Muslim family, most of Kusturica’s feature films have been garlanded with awards. He remains one of only eight filmmakers to have won the Palme d’Or twice, for When Father Was Away on Business and Underground. No doubt, he is an immensely talented filmmaker, and nearly all of his films showcase an intense visual imagination. Even his early work, rooted in the drab confines of social realism, cracks and sparkles with visual flair. He also has the good fortune that his films are mostly` still easily available on DVD in the West in decent quality with subtitles, a privilege afforded to only a precious few Balkan filmmakers, despite the surge in interest in works from elsewhere in ex-communist Eastern Europe.

Kusturica’s films are based on constant movement. Whether it’s the camera or it’s the characters, whether it’s the music or the mise-en-scène, something is always shifting. Underground is loaded with circular movement and multi-layered screen composition. In Life is a Miracle (2004), barely a scene goes by without the incessant parping of a Gypsy brass band (not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself). The amount of alcohol consumed and partying puked through in Black Cat, White Cat is enough to knock out the most hardened hedonists. Between them, these three films depict an almost-mythical version of the Balkans, as a half-developed backwater populated by macho brutes, copious amounts of alcohol, gypsy brass bands and perpetual bar fights.

This semi-Orientalist vision has its own name, originated by Maria Todorova: Balkanism, whereby Western visions of the region reflect it as an “othered” version of Europe’s supposed cultural superiority, like a darkened mirror of itself. To quote Žižek: “[Underground] is a mythical Balkans shot for the Western gaze…it’s a film that internalized the Western notion of a crazy nation, where war is simply our nature.”In the ‘90s, when the Balkans found themselves at the forefront of national news, these kinds of stereotypes began to find common currency in the media, fused now with the idea that we were all wedded to some ethnic tribal warlords, and spent our time casually committing genocides and burning our neighbors’ homes.

In that vacuum between the fall of Communism and 9/11, Serbs were temporarily Hollywood’s go-to baddies. There was a whole wave of late ‘90s/early ‘00s Hollywood cinema where that was the case, or where the Balkan conflict was used as a catalyst for American screen soldiers to feel sad. You can see it in Behind Enemy Lines, where Owen Wilson gets to pretend Bosnia is a torturous playground for Americans, or The Hunted, directed by none other than William Friedkin and starring Benicio Del Toro as a special ops soldier who goes crazy after seeing atrocities in Kosovo. Both films use the Balkans as a lazy peg on which to hang their plotlines on, an internecine, unintelligible quagmire into which no civilized Westerner can venture through unharmed. There’s also smaller fare like Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo, which whilst more sympathetic to life during the war, is also guilty of using it as a coat-hanger for Western protagonists to feel bad about themselves for. This is Balkanism in action.

This became an even worse problem when it influenced presidential foreign policy. Bill Clinton was supposedly quite swayed by reading the (frankly terrible) Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan, which mostly suggests we were all tribal peasants who lived with centuries-old grudges. It’s a book content with using phrases such as “the landscape of atrocities,” or referring to Bosnian villages as “full of savage hatreds, leavened by poverty and alcoholism,” as if the violence were millennia old. This, too, is Balkanism in action, and has a real effect on how we in the Balkans perceive ourselves; such is the influence of American media and foreign policy overseas.

Europe has always seen us as its ratty little brother, a stain on the side, good only for keeping Ottomans out (or in modern times, refugees). It has always ignored the vast intellectual and artistic heritage of that whole swathe of land from Ljubljana to Skopje, and beyond to Sofia, Tirana, and Bucharest. Many of Kusturica’s films are guilty of confirming these exact Westernized stereotypes of the Balkans.

One begins to wonder if Emir Kusturica’s films are known in the West simply because they are good, or because they conform to these stereotypes whilst placing a few basic, easily-accepted universal truths into their texts. Underground is at once both a cry for pan-nationalism devoid of borders, and a film that revels in its masculinity and drunkenness whilst privileging Serbian identity as subsuming all other Balkan identities—pan-nationalism via subjugation. Black Cat, White Cat satirizes the criminal classes, whilst also reveling in a party atmosphere encouraged by those same classes, whilst Life is a Miracle hands out simple moral platitudes in the context of a highly stylized Serbian folk village straight out of the nationalist imagination. I can think of a number of excellent Balkan filmmakers who engage in the same subjects without recourse to macho anarchy. You can’t be a tourist to the kind of anarchy that Kusturica depicts in his films. You can’t visit it, and hope that when you leave, things will suddenly self-correct. The existence of such anarchy in his films is a response to the lawlessness of Serbian and Balkan society in the ‘90s, when hyperinflation annihilated the economy and made the black market king. But Kusturica often encourages us to revel in it without truly confronting its meaning and context, so we’re visiting it safely from a distance.

How do Western audiences respond to this anarchy? I think most view it as part of Kusturica’s style, and predominantly as an aesthetic tool, without noticing how this exoticized anarchy sometimes plays into their assumptions about the Balkans. Growing up in the U.K., I latched onto this anarchy as a reflection of the life back home that I knew and longed for, free of the boring constraints that dominated my life. But I am stuck somewhere between being a tourist and a native now, seeing this world only when on a break from “regular” life in Britain.

If this exoticization of Balkan culture is a possible cause of Kusturica’s comparative popularity in the West, is this replicated with other cinema cultures? Is the poetic miserabilism of Andrei Tarkovsky only popular in the West because of how Westerners expect Russians to be, or because his films are actually masterpieces? Is City of God the most famous Brazilian film simply because it is the best, or is it because it conforms to our image of the country as a beautiful, sun-kissed paradise lost to drug violence and favela poverty? Do you like Kusturica’s films because they’re good, or because you think we’re all alcoholics who always have a gypsy brass band on call?

There has long been the implication amongst scholars like Žižek and Dina Iordanova that, certainly in his most well known work in Underground, Kusturica is an apologist for the Serbian war crimes in the ‘90s. The plot is too convoluted to summarize here fully, but the basic outline is thus: in the midst of World War II, a group of Serbs find themselves holed up in a cellar to escape the bombing. Marko (Miki Manojlović), a Communist fighter, ends up protecting them and uses this as an opportunity to lock them down there, telling them that the war is raging outside for as long as 40 years. The cellar-dwellers, including Marko’s best friend Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) are ignorant of Marko’s real role as a partisan careerist who uses Blacky’s supposed martyrdom to further his own career, until all of that comes crashing down in a violent third act—the implication throughout being that the cellar is a metaphor for Titoist communism.

Early on in Underground, there is archival footage of the Nazis arriving in Yugoslavia. The footage used to depict their arrivals in Ljlubljana (Slovenia) and Zagreb (Croatia) showcases crowds actively waving them in, whilst that of Belgrade (Serbia) shows the streets empty, thus aligning the Nazi state with Slovenia and Croatia. Additionally, there’s a clique of untrustworthy figures circling around the protagonists, who are mostly Croats or Bosnians, a fact generally lost to those not familiar with the language. In ’95, with much of the Serbian media consistently attacking both Slovenia and Croatia as fascist states, Underground’s depiction is a grossly insensitive case of pot, kettle, black.

Then there’s the tricky fact that Underground was made at least partly with Serbian state funding at the height of Milošević’s rule, which means Kusturica effectively took money from war criminals to make his film. There’s also the amorality inherent in the protagonists, which implicitly suggests that the eruption of violence in the region was not due to propaganda, politics, or greed, but of primordial base instincts due to the Balkans “being” at the crux of where great empires have collapsed—Roman, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian. It seems to suggest that nothing could be done about the collapse of Yugoslavia, as violence is inherent to the peoples of the region—again, Balkanism in action.

These elements passed me by at the time, but once pointed out served to deeply damage my relationship to the film, and rightfully so. But I think the film is a little deeper than its simple and flawed relationship to the nationalism of the era.

Aside from its aforementioned contradictory plea for pan-nationalism and possible sly suggestion Serbian identity is the only valid one, there is also the fact that it is a film about propaganda; about how narratives handed down to us by authorities shape and contextualize our lives, often without us even realizing. It can also be called a piece of propaganda itself. It is an ouroboros of a film, forever eating itself, contradicting every layer of its meaning with more contradictions. Yet, it seems as if Underground was a one-off for Kusturica in this period, because he never again returned to such complexity.

His next film was Black Cat, White Cat. Unlike Underground, it was superficially apolitical, a comedy centered around two squabbling clans of Roma Gypsies, depicted largely as romanticized loveable rogues. It’s a sort of Balkanism-within-Balkanism, whereby a Serbian artist depicts the exoticized world of a Romani minority, in stark contrast to the reality of real Romani life in the Balkans, which is largely one of poverty and marginalization. Kusturica does align himself with underdog Roma culture here, but as a tourist who ignores the wider context—Kusturica’s Romani world is largely defined by alcohol, lax personal hygiene and low-level criminality. Films dotted throughout Yugoslav cinema such as Aleksandar Petrović’s I Even Met Happy Gypsies (1967), Goran Paskaljević’s Guardian Angel (1987), and the works of Zoran Tairović tell a more psychologically realistic account of Roma life in the former Yugoslavia. I used to love Black Cat, White Cat for its slapstick attitude, but now it seems like a mediocrity of masturbatory sensory overload.

Life is a Miracle also tried to be, in a bizarre sort of way, apolitical. Set during the Bosnian war, it is distasteful and ignorant. It depicts a love affair across ethnic lines between a Serbian man and a Muslim woman, and asks the audience simply, as if the answer to all the region’s problems is a brief handshake and “Can’t we all just get along?”

Romeo and Juliet-esque plotlines have become a common trope in post-war Balkan cinema, but they’re mostly just a lazy way of trying to shrug off the hard political issues—endemic corruption, vested interests, and long-term bitterness—that stand in the way of genuine reconciliation. Love is a Miracle tries to do what’s frankly impossible: it takes a recent war, one still very fresh in the minds of the region’s inhabitants, and attempts to make a jovial, parochial tale out of it that refuses to outwardly condemn any particular side. Plenty of excellent films have used black comedy as a way of approaching the wars. This is not one of them.

I broadly take the belief that one should usually separate the art from the artist. In the case of Kusturica, that’s much harder. His films are so closely tied up with the history of Yugoslavia, so keen to engage with it, that they cannot be viewed outside of that context or his stance on it. I have no desire to rewatch his later films—what once seemed like energetic surrealist parables now feel like lazy, ill-conceived comedies with no understanding of their own context.

As a result of these films as well as his personal behavior, Kusturica has, over time, become a highly volatile figure in the former Yugoslavia. His name is poison nowadays in his native Sarajevo, where he made his first two films. Unlike the controversy surrounding Underground, a large number of ex-Yugoslavs still hold a huge amount of fondness for Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (1981) and When Father Was Away on Business, both of which are films rooted in a youthful nostalgia. They’re set in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Yugoslavia was trying to find a third way past Soviet-style communism and Western capitalism. These films had rock music, football, teenage infatuation, and a lovingly rendered vision of a Sarajevo populated by all ethnicities, with no defining aspect separating Muslims, Serbs, or Croats. Their empathy and insight into growing up as a Yugoslav in that period are still unparalleled. These are films that understood the rallying cry of Brotherhood and Unity, but also were unafraid to embrace its contradictions—the testy political allegiances that tore apart families during the Tito-Stalin split was painfully detailed in When Father Was Away on Business whilst the confusion of capitalist rock ‘n’ roll and communist top-down cultural prerogative was embraced in Do You Remember Dolly Bell?

But in the ‘90s, Kusturica turned his back on his secular Muslim roots in Sarajevo, even christening himself in the Serbian Orthodox Church. When Abdulah Sidran, his co-writer on the Sarajevo films, claimed on national TV that he believed the real Kusturica was killed in the ‘90s and replaced by a nationalist Serbian doppelganger, it didn’t sound too implausible. Stranger things have happened in the Balkans.

But it’s easy to pass judgement on somebody from a distance. All I know for sure is that Kusturica the man, and maybe the filmmaker, is very confusing. Reading through interviews with him, it’s hard to find any consistent through-line as to how he perceives the world.Though he never explicitly supported Milošević, he never rejected him either. He publicly challenged Vojislav Šešelj, a convicted war criminal, to a duel once in ‘90s (Šešelj is still hugely popular in Serbia amongst far-right nationalists, and backed by some very dangerous people). It takes a certain amount of guts to do that in public.

But then again, Kusturica has also come out fanatically in support of keeping Kosovo as part of Serbia, and has claimed that NATO is very much responsible for the destruction of Yugoslavia. These are opinions stereotypically held by nationalists nursing grievances against what they see as the destruction of traditional Serbian dominance in the region, yet he has also often stressed his commitment to pan-national Yugoslavism of the old Titoist variety, and can often come across as very Yugonostalgic. He is fanatically against capitalism, and resents the way everything is sold, branded, and sold again these days in Serbia. Yet he built his own town in the mountains—initially as a set for Life is a Miracle—and it is now a bizarre Kusturica-style theme park for tourists, a branded exercise in Kusturica-mania. In The New York Times, Dan Halperin captured this amusing exchange between him and his wife when was on one of his anti-capitalist rants:

Emir: [Today] everything must be sold! Everything must be for sale! Everyone must buy! Everyone must have a Jeep!

Maja: Even you.

Emir: Yes, even me.

Maja: You have three.

He is not a man who makes any sort of consistent sense. His outbursts and stated leanings sway between Serbian nationalism and anti-nationalism, and he has a distrust of the new capitalist system but a willingness to brand himself a particular way. It may sound contradictory, but his views aren’t that far off from many other people of his generation in Serbia. It speaks, I think, to a general sense of a loss of place, a loss of being, and a loss of purpose. The old Titoism had its problems, but the problems were bound up in ideological certainties—you knew how to navigate the corrupt official and the stodgy bureaucracy because they always spoke the language of state socialism. Today, that corrupt official is speaking the language of neoliberalism one day, and far-right nationalism the next, extolling the virtues of social democracy before breakfast, the values of individualism after lunch.

The guiding hand of Titoism provided not just an ideology, but an authority against which to rebel—and thus, the artist had something to criticize. The Milošević years annihilated that. One of its key elements was that Milošević had no fixed ideology—he was a communist when he needed to be one, a nationalist when the winds were favorable. A friend to the West, an enemy of the West. Defender of Christianity, protector of the secular state. If you stood against him, he would find a way to co-opt your ideals. Amongst that ideological backdrop, it’s hard to stand against anything. A lot of intellectuals and public figures sullied themselves with an association with Milošević or one of his affiliates, even unwittingly, cheapening public discourse in Serbia, as well as throughout the Balkans.

Do You Remember Dolly Bell? and When Father Was Away on Business proved Kusturica was one of the most insightful and empathetic filmmakers of his generation. I don’t believe that a filmmaker as powerful and as intelligent as the one that made those films can disappear entirely. But perhaps the shock of the war, the trauma of all Yugoslav society falling apart, and the amorality of the Milošević regime pushed Kusturica into the mythological embrace of ideologically confused nationalism. To do such a thing represents a simple, instinctual reaction, perhaps one in keeping with a uniquely instinctual filmmaker.

Underground sits directly in the middle of Kusturica’s career, the midway point between his Yugoslav cinema and his Serbian cinema. For all its deep-seated flaws and controversial authorial choices, something about it has always captivated me. Underground is a film I used to love unreservedly, but now feel waves of mixed feelings about. Its layer upon layer of disorientating contradictions only ever seems to grow. I now see it with all its ugly, horrendous flaws—I can see the ignorance and double standard peppered throughout—but somehow a part of me rises through all of that to find that I love the film still. Its contradictions, paradoxes, and flaws form part of its tapestry, and art is nothing if not gloriously imperfect. Is its own satirization of propaganda a double bluff reflected twice over in its propagandistic nature? Is the film its own mirror? As it comments on how propaganda has shaped Yugoslav history, maybe it is deliberately making its own propaganda to fool us, re-aligning its object of satire right back at us? I don’t know if Kusturica is self-aware enough to have made such a film; most of his filmography and behavior suggests he is a man of pure instinct. But his films, at their best, are alive, writhing, never-still creatures, living in a hall of mirrors.

A friend of mine once succinctly described Serbia as “the most ideologically disorienting country in Europe.” I think that applies to Emir Kusturica. He is the most ideologically disorienting man in Europe. I cannot understand him. I cannot understand how a man who grew up in Sarajevo, who made films about it as if he knew and loved the city like an extension of his heart, ended up saying nothing about the horrendous siege it endured for three years, the longest in modern warfare. I certainly cannot understand Underground. That’s why I fell out of love with the film, and why I fell back in love with it. If we require that we understand the films we love (or hell, even the people we love), we may never love anything fully. Life is a complicated mess. History and politics are a complicated mess. Underground doesn’t depict the truth or the facts of the history and politics it wishes to critique—but it does depict its confusion, its uncertainty, and its difficulty.

We so often write about films with assertiveness, but the truth is, it’s hard to be certain about anything. Underground is a film I thought I once understood completely, but now I seem to understand less and less with each new viewing. There aren’t many films you can say that about. And that’s okay. I’m quite content with not knowing. The rest of the world is already difficult enough to comprehend. Why should a film be any different?