Friday, 28 July 2017

Cinema, Kitsch and Kisses from Küstendorf

Life is a Miracle in Kusturica’s Village in Serbia

Text and photographs by Ekaterina Petrova

We wind up in Küstendorf on the way back from Sarajevo, which has become synonymous with cinema as the host of the largest film festival in Southeast Europe in recent years. Bosnia’s capital itself is reminiscent of a film set, its buildings still bearing the scars of the four-year siege in the 1990s – the latest of many layers of all the different eras that have marked the city’s existence through history. The mountain road that takes us away from Sarajevo has a cinematic quality about it too, as it winds perilously along the Drina River. At the crossing into Serbia, our papers are checked by border guards who look as if they’ve just stepped out of an Emir Kusturica movie, and I feel relief wash over me when they finally wave us through.

Shortly after crossing the border, we turn off the main road and drive a little higher up the mountain. We park the car and walk into the village, which feels like crossing the threshold and entering into yet another film, but one of a different genre and time. Pastoral timber houses with sloping roofs and brightly colored doors and windows are perched on the sun-drenched hill. Blooming flowers in red-and-white polka-dotted cooking pots line the paths between the houses. Behind a wood-carved fence, two cats – one black, and the other white, stretch lazily in the sun, undisturbed by the stray dog dozing under shadow of the nearby tree.

Brief Filmography
Emir Kusturica is one of Europe’s most celebrated filmmakers. The international career of the Sarajeo-born director began in 1981 with Do You Remember Dolly Bell?, which won the Silver Lion for best first feature at the Venice Film Festival. Several years later, his human political drama When Father Was Away on Business (1985) won the top prize at Cannes and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar. In 1989, Kusturica won the Best Director award at Cannes for Time of the Gypsies (1988), which was followed by his first English language movie, Arizona Dream (1992), starring Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway. Underground (1995), a bitter surrealistic comedy about the Balkans, won Kusturica his second Palme d’Or at Cannes and definitively shot him into world infamy. It was followed by Black Cat, White Cat (1998), Life is a Miracle (2004) and Promise Me This (2007). His last completed film is the documentary Maradona by Kusturica (2008). Kusturica is currently working on two projects.
This is Küstendorf, the brainchild of the cult Balkan filmmaker Emir Kusturica. As his creation, the village is a material testament to the director’s personal passions and quirks, but also – and quite astonishingly, it is an embodiment of many of the themes, ideas and aesthetics that mark his films. Known as cinema’s magical realist, as the Gabriel García Márquez of the screen, in his cinematic work Kusturica blends whimsy and reality, magic and realism, fantasy and truth, humor and somberness. Küstendorf, or Drvengrad (literally ‘Wooden Town’) as it is also known, reconciles these dualities without any apparent effort and as a result, the place not only feels, but actually is, simultaneously authentic and like a fairytale, real and imagined, exuberant and solemn, contemporary and historic.

In actuality, the “ethno-village” dates back to 2004, when Kusturica had it built as a set for his film Life Is a Miracle. Perched on a hill between the Zlatibor and Tara Mountains, Küstendorf is located 250 kilometers away from Belgrade in the western part of Serbia, close to the border with Kusturica’s native Bosnia. A part of the village’s wooden houses are authentic and date from the nineteenth century – they’ve been collected from around the area, transported and then reassembled at the new location, while others were built recently, but in the same traditional style.

The Serbian Orthodox Church that dominates the central square is surrounded by other wooden buildings, which house hotel rooms and administrative offices, restaurants, bars and cafés, a pastry shop, a library, two movie theatres, an amphitheatre, and even a swimming pool, tennis courts, a kindergarten, and a hair salon. The gift shop is a mixture between the erstwhile general store typical of small villages in this part of the world and a modern tourist souvenir shop – it offers a curious selection of goods, ranging from hand-knitted socks, rustic woven rugs and lace table covers, to road maps of Serbia, jars of home-made jam and cheap Serbian cigarettes by the carton. This is where I discover – and immediate purchase – a kitschy lampshade, decorated with naivistic drawings. At first sight, the lampshade’s folkloric motives seem quite old-fashioned. They depict three romantic couples, somehow reminiscent of the man and woman in Chagall’s “Les fiancés de la tour Eiffel” – through instead of the Paris landmark, they stand against the background of some village hills, presumably Küstendorf’s. A closer look, however, reveals the couples are intertwined in embraces that are too passionate to be old-fashioned, their cheeks are rosy from the red wine in their hands, and one of the women, while wearing a traditional polka-dotted scarf over her head, also sports a t-shirt with the slogan (in English), “The sexy bride.” These and other similar personages can be seen as decorative elements throughout the village – as murals on the walls of the restaurant, as paintings in the cafés, and as decorations on the hand-painted antique dowry chests in the hotel rooms. In their style and message, the drawings seem to be based on some idea of a romanticized past, which doesn’t correspond to an actual historical period, simply because this period has been imagined and never really existed. This applies to Küstendorf as a whole, too.

As a mixture between an architectural reserve, a Western-style all-inclusive hotel complex, a socialist-era ethnographic museum village, a Disneyland-type theme park, and an artificial film set, Küstendorf would have been a little over the top, if it weren’t for Kusturica’s sense of humor and playful nods, which are visible and palpable at literally every corner: from the name of the place itself (a play on the director’s name and the German words for ‘coastal’ and ‘village’, even though Küstendorf is actually surrounded by mountains and lies hundreds of kilometers from the nearest sea); through the old cars, scattered around the village, including a gigantic black “Volga” – a symbol of the Soviet nomenklatura, and a limousine model of the East German “Trabant,” once considered as the antithesis of luxury (a normal version of which made a memorable and symbolic cameo appearance in Kusturica’s film Black Cat, White Cat); to the names of the buildings, streets, and even the drinks at the cafés.

Küstendorf’s map is bursting with the names of personalities of various spheres, nationalities and historical periods, who as a whole appear united by very little apart from Kusturica’s personal esteem and sympathies. Johnny Depp, who starred in the director’s 1993 cult surrealist film Arizona Dream, has been commemorated with a life-sized Madame-Tussauds-style statue and, casually leaning against a wooden pole, stands on the square, which in turn was named after Ivo Andrić, the Yugoslav writer and winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature.

This space then opens up into the central square, which bears the name of the great Serbian-American inventor and electrical engineer (and the reason why my lampshade can be lit up today) Nikola Tesla, where the St. Sava Church and the Stanley Kubrick Bioscope, or cinema, are located. The Bruce Lee Street starts behind the church, and then splits into three: the Jean Vigo Street; the Branislav Nušić Street, which ends at the Andrei Tarkovsky Square; and the Federico Fellini Street, which goes through the Nikita Mikhalkov Square, before running into the Jim Jarmusch and Ingmar Bergman cross streets. After a whirlwind walk through more than a hundred years’ worth of cinematic, literary and scientific achievements and across at least three continents, the visitor can then pay homage to international sports, by either walking along the Novak Djokovic Street, called after the superbly successful Serbian tennis player, or stopping by the square, named in honor of the football legend and subject of Kusturica’s last completed film, Diego Maradona.

Another South American among Kusturica’s favorites is Che Guevara, who has not only given his name to a square, but whose face also graces the labels of the Bio Revolution bottles of locally-made organic raspberry juice, which are sold in the cafés. The other flavors they offer include blackberry, blueberry and strawberry, while Fidel Castro, Tito, and Kusturica himself entice potential drinkers from their respective labels. Launched by Kusturica, the juice brand is a quirky testament to the director’s fascination with Latin American dictators and revolutionaries, both real and imagined. In the mid-2000s, for example, he announced his intentions to bring The Autumn of the Patriarch, Gabriel García Márquez’s dictator novel, to the screen, although the project was never realized.

Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment and D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel also belong in the same group of projects, which Kusturica never took beyond the planning stage. Although surely disappointing to his fans and followers, the films he did complete more than compensate for those that he didn’t realize. Curiously enough, Kusturica claims that the Küstendorf village itself is the best film he has ever made. Even those who tend to disagree would find it hard to deny that, even if not technically a film in and of itself, Küstendorf is a place that continuously and tirelessly celebrates cinema. Besides serving as a year-round tourist destination and, at least according to some sources, Kusturica’s sometime home, each January the village also houses the Küstendorf International Film and Music Festival. Since its launch in 2008, the festival has brought together almost all the living personalities who have given their names to the streets, as well as many other world-renowned filmmakers. Although the festival purposely doesn’t boast a red carpet, it holds a film competition, whose top three awards – the Golden, Silver and Bronze Egg, for which Kusturica reportedly got the idea from a conversation with Gabriel García Márquez, are intended to symbolize the essence of the universe.

A visit to Küstendorf, then, is a journey into a universe, whose essence was imagined – and later brought to reality, by Kusturica. It is a universe where people love each other and enjoy life, cinema, literature, and sports, while drinking red wine and organic raspberry juice; where the dogs don’t chase after the cats; and the gypsy orchestra never stops playing. According to Kusturica’s version, which he has obviously dreamed up with inspiration from some of his favorite fellow filmmakers – no matter how terrible it can get sometimes, life is not only a miracle, but also, life is wonderful (in the manner of Frank Capra), beautiful (à la Roberto Benigni), dolce (à la Fellini), and sweet (à la Mike Leigh). This version is so appealing and convincing that it is almost impossible to resist falling for it, even if for just a little while – about as long as it takes to walk through the village or watch one of Kusturica's movies.




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