Sarajevan’s Journey From Cinema Hero to ‘Traitor’


As the only Serbian director to attend the Sarajevo Film Festival, Srdjan Karanovic was understandably besieged by questions at his press conference. What was going on in Belgrade, who was working and what were they up to?

Karanovic rattled off half a dozen films currently being shot, but he did not mention “Black Cat White Cat,” the latest work by Emir Kusturica, the former Yugoslavia’s most celebrated director, a native and former resident of Sarajevo who now divides his time between Belgrade and France. Asked later why he left Kusturica off his list, Karanovic got off a “you must be kidding” look before answering, “I didn’t want to disturb them. They hate him here, they treat him like a traitor.”

Just a few years ago, such a response would have been unthinkable. Kusturica was Sarajevo’s favorite son and a bona fide national cultural hero: When his Oscar-nominated “When Father Was Away on Business” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1985, Yugoslavia declared a national holiday.


In fact, each of Kusturica’s works has won a prize at Europe’s top three festivals, an unprecedented record that makes him one of the continent’s most admired filmmakers. His debut, “Do You Remember Dolly Bell?,” won a Golden Lion at Venice in 1981; “Time of the Gypsies” won him the best director award at Cannes in 1989; “Arizona Dreams,” starring Johnny Depp, took a special jury prize at Berlin in 1993, and his latest film, “Underground,” won him a rare second Palme d’Or in 1995.

There was no Yugoslavian national holiday in 1995 because by then a viable Yugoslavia no longer existed. The country had split into five separate nations that were involved in Europe’s bloodiest nightmare since World War II. Kusturica’s politics and his film, which dealt with the breakup, became the subject of intense debate about which side he was on not only in Sarajevo and Belgrade but all across Europe. It led to the director’s public decision to quit filmmaking (he’s since changed his mind) and to turbulent, invariably hostile commentary about him in his hometown. Probably nowhere in the world does the mention of a director’s name elicit such an immediate and strong response from so many people as Kusturica’s does here.

The reversal in this filmmaker’s fortunes is a lesson in many things, from how deep the wounds of war can be to how puzzling yet intractable are feelings of national identity and pride and how central film has become to the expression of all of that. In fact, tell a film person from anywhere in the former Yugoslavia you want to discuss something complicated and they’ll say, “It’s about Kusturica, isn’t it?”

“Underground,” the director’s newest film (initially called “Once There Was a Country”), is an unruly, audacious, unashamedly excessive requiem for a dying Yugoslavia. It is an impassioned and surreal look at the past 50 years of that country’s history through the lens of an opportunist who keeps a trusting group of people holed up in a Belgrade basement by convincing them that World War II is still going on.

“Underground” impressed even those in the audience at Cannes who considered the film way over the top and its three-hour, 12-minute length unnecessary. (The film has since been trimmed to two hours, 48 minutes and will open at the Nuart in West Los Angeles at Christmas.)

Also impressive was Kusturica’s passion for Yugoslavia. “I had to do something about a country that I loved, I had a need to answer the question, ‘What happened?’ ” the 42-year-old director said at Cannes of his reasons for making “Underground.” He also expressed displeasure, referring to Bosnia, at “now having to find myself under another flag, another country, another anthem,” which is where things get complicated.

For though what’s come to be called “Yugonostalgia” is a common feeling, actively promoting the preservation of Yugoslavia came to be viewed as trying to justify Serbian aggression. Also, the director’s diffidence toward Bosnia at a time when it was under merciless attack did not go over well back home.

In addition, many of the subtexts of “Underground,” like its blaming the country’s problems on the policies of Marshal Tito instead of Serbian self-aggrandizement, could be interpreted as legitimizing the war. The more Kusturica thought--possibly naively, possibly with calculation--that he was refusing to take sides, stepping outside of politics by distancing himself from the Muslim nationalist party that ruled Bosnia, the more his actions placed him in the Serb camp in the eyes of Sarajevo. And his having shot the film partly in Belgrade with a bit of Serbian financing did not help the situation.

All this contributed to nearly a year of bitter intellectual trench warfare about the film centered in the journals of Paris. One side saw the film as “a rock, postmodern, over-the-top, hip, Americanized version of the most driveling and lying Serbian propaganda.”

Then the other side responded, as Adam Gopnik reported in New Yorker magazine, that “the subject of the film wasn’t nationalism at all, but the consequences of Communism--that it wasn’t a national myth of Serbia but a transnational allegory of the post-Cold War period.” That in turn caused celebrated Austrian novelist Peter Handke, in an essay published in this country as “A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia,” to take yet a third tack and defend “Underground” precisely for its Serbian point of view.

In the middle of all of this, Kusturica announced in the French newspaper Liberation that he was quitting filmmaking. “I don’t know to what extent this will relieve my enemies,” he said, “but I do know that my friends will understand to what extent my life will be less burdensome.”

Speaking recently from Belgrade, where he described his new film “Black Cat White Cat” as “something much lighter, a genre piece, pure comedy,” Kusturica says that his decision to quit filmmaking was as much a product of exhaustion as anything else. “Each frame is like a question of life and death for me,” he said. “So in the middle of every movie I’m definitely deciding to stop.”

Still troubling to him is the criticism he received for “Underground.” “I made a movie that was really the most sincere expression of how I felt about the past, that we were highly manipulated by politicians and the people who were leading us,” he says. “I was doing all my best against propaganda and at the end I was accused of doing an Americanized version of Serbian propaganda. I felt in the middle of an Orwellian tragic comedy, I almost didn’t find my way out of the ‘Underground’ story that was parallel to the ‘Underground’ film.”

Saying the reasons he left Sarajevo are “very personal,” Kusturica is most troubled by the fact that his apartment, as were many residences of people who left, has been confiscated by the state and given to a prominent writer. “In Sarajevo, it’s very profitable to scream slogans, to be against somebody who did not want to be involved so you can jump into his apartment and take all his belongings,” he says. “Basically in the name of creating a multiethnic Bosnia they are looting our places.”

To the people who remained in Sarajevo, it is the fact that Kusturica not only left but did things like promoting a Belgrade film festival while his birthplace was being bombed that caused people to be angriest with the director. “It’s the 1940s, you don’t give a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic, everyone understands what is to be done when killers are killing people,” says a filmmaker. And Dzeilana Pecanin, a film buff who moved to Washington after the war, is even more direct. “I despise the person, I think he is the greatest jerk on Earth. I don’t care what he does, I don’t think his movies deserve my eyes.”

As to why Kusturica made the moves he did, there are as many opinions as people. Defending him are filmmakers like Srdjan Dragonjevic, the Serbian director of “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame,” who says, “Kusturica did the right thing. Sarajevo expected he would stay and would make propaganda for Muslim people during the war. The artist has his own rights and his own place in the world. It’s not necessary to choose one side in a conflict; if you do that, you stop being an artist.”

In Sarajevo, however, Kusturica is reviled as careerist, narcissistic, vain, and--ironically given his insistence that he wanted to be outside of propaganda--his involvement in politics is cited by almost everyone as a cause of his downfall in esteem.

“Politics is fatal for cinema,” says Aco Staka, the dean of Yugoslavian critics, speaking the words in English to accent their importance. Staka’s son, former Sarajevo journalist Vladimir Staka, agrees but sees things in a wider perspective.

“The main reason is that people felt abandoned by him; he was the principal bearer of the Sarajevo spirit and he switched,” the younger Staka says. “If there was a lot of irrational reaction against him, one should understand the irrational situation we were in. During the war people identified with the government that was struggling to keep as many people alive as possible, and he gave numerous statements that were critical of the regime.

“If you’re an artist, you’ll do anything, you’ll sell your soul to the devil to get money to make movies. And now he bears a terrible mortgage in Sarajevo.”