WHERE THERE’S SMOKE

The threat of musical an­ar­chy won’t be far away when vi­sion­ary mu­si­cian and film­maker Emir Kus­turica and his band take the stage in Ade­laide, writes Jane Corn­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

It’s the open­ing con­cert of the 10th Kus­ten­dorf In­ter­na­tional Film and Mu­sic Fes­ti­val in Ser­bia, and founder-di­rec­tor Emir Kus­turica has sticks of gold con­fetti in his long grey fringe and an elec­tric gui­tar strapped across his un­char­ac­ter­is­tic black tuxedo. Five sim­i­larly be­suited mu­si­cians on in­stru­ments in­clud­ing fid­dle, accordion and tuba are seated around him, per­form­ing some of the tunes they have played on ev­ery Kus­turica movie sound­track since his ac­claimed 1999 screw­ball com­edy Black Cat, White Cat.

The band’s name is the No Smok­ing Or­ches­tra and it is fronted by the out­spo­ken Kus­turica, who is also a two-time Palme d’Or-win­ning in­de­pen­dent film­maker. And tonight the or­ches­tra’s tur­bocharged gumbo of gypsy swing, Ser­bian rock, Slavic folk and Greek and Jewish wed­ding mu­sic — a sound la­belled ‘‘unza unza’’ — is be­ing played straight and se­date, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with a big band from the Ser­bian city of Novi Sad. The threat of musical an­ar­chy, how­ever, is never far away.

‘‘And God said, ‘Oh my God! What’s hap­pened to the hu­man be­ing / Wake up crowd / Wake up from your bor­ing dream,’’ run the lyrics of Unza Unza Time, the No Smok­ing Or­ches­tra’s fre­netic 2000 hit; which, like most of its English/Ser­bian reper­toire, has a left-field, antiglob­al­ist aes­thetic.

A ca­pac­ity au­di­ence in the Noam Chom­sky Theatre in Kus­ten­dorf, the wooden vil­lage Kus­turica built on a moun­tain­side in west­ern Ser­bia, ap­plauds warmly af­ter each track. This isn’t your usual mile-a-minute NSO gig, in which bare-chested band mem­bers in cow­boy hats pogo and crowd-surf, and sweaty fans mosh and storm the stage. ‘‘This is dance mu­sic that one can­not re­sist be­cause no two feet re­main calm when it plays,’’ trum­pets the band’s bi­og­ra­phy.

The 11-piece Ser­bian band will play WOMADe­laide this month, but tonight the fo­cus is on Ser­bia. Ser­bian Min­is­ter of Cul­ture Vladan Vukosavl­je­vic•has al­ready made a short speech talk­ing up the fes­ti­val’s pol­icy of cre­ative ex­change be­tween young direc­tors and sea­soned moviemak­ers, along with its mis­sion to high­light lo­cal traditions and geog­ra­phy. Beam­ing at the min­is­ter’s el­bow, 62-year-old Kus­turica — vi­sion­ary, un­com­pro­mis­ing, bullishly con­tro­ver­sial — is a sur­pris­ingly avun­cu­lar pres­ence, wear­ing his na­tional trea­sure sta­tus as com­fort­ably as he might a puffer jacket and chunky boots, Kus­ten­dorf’s out­fit of choice.

There is no red car­pet at this bi­jou week-long wingding. Pre­vi­ous years have seen the likes of Johnny Depp, Au­drey Tautou and Mon­ica Bel­lucci — who fea­tures along­side Kus­turica in his new film, On the Milky Road — min­gling with in­ter­na­tional au­teurs and fresh-faced rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the “new au­thors” cat­e­gory, whose short films vie for the fes­ti­val’s main prize, the Golden Egg.

Helm­ing this year’s fes­ti­val Jury is the award-win­ning Chi­nese nov­el­ist and screen­writer Gel­ing Yan, whose frag­ile beauty be­lies a long stint in the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army, and who skil­fully ne­go­ti­ates the vil­lage’s icy streets, var­i­ously named af­ter Fellini, Bruce Lee and tennis champ No­vak Djokovic.

“We have a good place here, far away from sym­bols of the civilised world,” says the bear- like Kus­turica the day af­ter the con­cert, re­lax­ing in the Li­brary, a base­ment hang­out whose walls are stocked with nov­els and ref­er­ence books and bot­tles of Kus­ten­dorf’s or­ganic wine. “I used my author­ity with the gov­ern­ment to bring roads, canals and elec­tric­ity to the moun­tain. There was noth­ing when I first came ex­cept a haystack de­stroyed by [a storm].”

Boast­ing a film school, an Ortho­dox church, basketball courts (a trib­ute to the three world cham­pi­onships won by the for­mer Yu­goslavia), a well­ness cen­tre with swim­ming pool and even an at­ten­dant ski slope, the hill­top re­treat is open to guests all year around. Fans from as far away as Canada, Ja­pan and Morocco make pil­grim­ages to Kus­ten­dorf (which is also called Dr­ven­grad or ‘‘wooden town’’) in the hope of meet­ing their idol, one of the most cel­e­brated film­mak­ers in Europe and a man re­garded by many as a sort of Ser­bian Tarantino.

Kus­turica has a pied-a-terre in the Ser­bian cap­i­tal of Bel­grade, though he rarely stays there. But when not mak­ing movies, over­see­ing the build­ing of an­other vil­lage in the nearby Ser­bian Repub­lic of Bos­nia (An­dric­grad, af­ter No­bel prize-win­ning writer Ivo An­dric), or tour­ing the world with the NSO (more of which in a mo­ment), he and his wife Maja Mandic live in Kus­ten­dorf, in a two-storey house with a he­li­pad, sin­gle rail­ing fence and wan­der­ing gag­gle of snowy white geese.

Built for his 2004 film Life is a Mir­a­cle, and set amid some 11,000ha, the vil­lage is a work­ing model of what Kus­turica calls ‘‘new com­mu­nal­ism’’. It’s a po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy he in­sists of­fers real free­dom — as op­posed to the re­stric­tive lib­er­ties drip-fed by an anx­ious, cor­po­rate-con­trolled West.

“We have in­vest­ments. We are eco­log­i­cally and cul­tur­ally pro­tected. We pushed out a British com­pany who wanted to mine the nickel here and made this area na­tional park,” he says. Out there are deer, lynx and bears; On the Milky Road sees his char­ac­ter feed­ing wedges of orange to a bear from his mouth. “We are out of range from the new colo­nial­ists who would im­pose their bad in­fra­struc­ture.”

He has said he lost his city, Sara­jevo, the cap­i­tal of the Yu­goslav repub­lic of Bos­ni­aHerze­gov­ina, in the war, and af­ter stints in Paris and New York wanted some­where to be­long (he was last in Sara­jevo in 1992). His de­ci­sion to live in and iden­tify with Ser­bia was seen as trai­tor­ous by many Bos­ni­ans, es­pe­cially since Kus­turica, who is de­scended from a long line of Bos­nian Mus­lims (and be­fore that, Ortho­dox Chris­tian Serbs), rarely speaks out against Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic, the Ser­bian leader who rav­aged his home­land.

Kus­turica’s metaphor-packed, para­ble-like films sug­gest an acute aware­ness of the con­tra­dic­tions of Yu­goslavia’s trou­bled his­tory. He has al­ways in­sisted he didn’t choose sides: “Just be­cause I be­lieve in the iden­tity and in­tegrity of my coun­try doesn’t make [me] a xeno­phobe or a na­tion­al­ist,” he told Bri­tain’s Daily Tele­graph. He once chal­lenged ul­tra­na­tion­al­ist Ser­bian politi­cian Vo­jislav Se­selj to a duel in Bel­grade; Se­selj re­fused, stat­ing he would not be re­spon­si­ble for the death of a naive artist.

“Do you see that line down there?” Kus­turica points to­wards the beau­ti­ful, snow-dusted Mokra Gora val­ley spread­ing out be­low us. Some­where amid the pine forests is the fron­tier of the Bos­nian Serb por­tion of Bos­nia.

“War is fre­quent in our area, which makes us a very tragic na­tion. As An­dric says in his im­por­tant book, The Bridge on the Drina [which Kus­turica is adapt­ing for the screen], wars never solve the prob­lems that started them, but they open new chap­ters and ask new ques­tions that we have to an­swer in a new con­flict.

“Any­way, when I fin­ished shoot­ing Life is a Mir­a­cle” — in which a Ser­bian en­gi­neer falls for his Bos­nian Mus­lim hostage — “we built a town for the peo­ple, with no bor­ders and no prej­u­dice. A protest against this id­ioc­racy [sic] of the mass prod­uct, which is the sign and the sym­bol of all the world today.”

Emir Kus­turica per­form­ing with the No Smok­ing Or­ches­tra, left and right; Kus­turica at the 10th Kus­ten­dorf In­ter­na­tional Film and Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, be­low; with ac­tress Mon­ica Bel­lucci in his new film On the Milky Road, far right

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