”I was born several times, and I'm sure one of my births took place in Cannes.”
Born on 24 November 1954 in Sarajevo, Emir Kusturica (Емир Кустурица) is a Serbian director, musician and producer. Author of nine films, several television and short films, he also plays guitar in a rock band. Among his many prizes, he has received two Golden Palms in Cannes for When father was away on business and Underground, and the silver Bear (Special Jury Prize) in Berlin for Arizona Dream.
Emir Kusturica was born in Sarajevo, main town of current Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even though Bosnian Muslim, his family has Slavic orthodox roots. His father Murat, as many millions of other Yugoslavs, had renounced to his faith to become a communist. Emir, only son, denounced the communism to become… director. Young Emir, certainly more by curiosity than to oppose his “good” family (his father worked in the Ministry of Information of Bosnia and Herzegovina1)), went easily with “bad guys” of Sarajevo. His parents decided to send him abroad at 18 to protect him from such people. Since he was always in the neighbourhood cinema of Sarajevo, they sent him to learn cinema. A cousin was then leaving in Prague, Emir was thus sent to the prestigious FAMU, the school of Prague from which Miloš Forman, Jirí Menzel or Goran Paskaljević were graduated.
At that time, I was like a virgin land. I was very curious, but I didn't like school, and I had no real connections with the cinema. From that point of view, my career in cinema is a coincidence. But in fact, Hajrudin Krvavać, a friend of my father was directing institutional films at that time, and he once took me on a set. I was completely seduced by the wide variety of knowledges and experiences we could benefit from cinema. When I came back to Sarajevo after having done a good cinema school, I realized how much my region, my childhood memories, my personal experiences were rich enough to create stories. It was the first time I had fully realized what was the cinema.
Quickly appreciated, his first short films set this student apart from the crowd. His professor had already noticed it: with Guernica, and again which Titanic, which denounces the anti-Jewish racism in the WW2, left favourable impressions and he said : ”the only thing you'll leave behind will be your film; the end justifies the means”. This sentence marked him and helped him complete his first personal projects, such as the very risky When father was away on business, denouncing the political deportations in the communist Yugoslavia, a taboo subject at the time, shortly after Tito's death. Until then, Emir had always shot in his own language, using even the actor's local accents, to enhance the pluralism of Yugoslavia: Do you remember Dolly Bell ? is the first Yugoslav film that was shot in the local Bosnian dialect, and not in the official language of the country, Serbo-Croatian (the equivalent of “BBC English”). Emir makes then an ambitious project with his scenarist: make a trilogy about the cosmopolitan city of Sarajevo. The second episode will be When father was away on business, but the unexpected Golden Palm will drive Emir into another world, and he will leave without finishing his trilogy.
To calm down after the Cannes' victory, Emir Kusturica put the camera down for a while. He played the bass guitar in a punk-rock band of Sarajevo : Zabranjeno Pušenje (Smoking Prohibited). The band is subversive, lyrics are corrosive, style is eclectic. During these years, Emir teams up with Dr. Nele Karajlić, the leader of the band.
The Golden Palm had opened all doors of the cinema to him: large budgets are proposed. Emir thinks about different subjects, different places, but finally it's in his own country that he directs Time of the Gypsies, after having read articles about Gypsies dealing with human beings. Emir digs the subject with a journalist, and spends several months in one of the largest gypsy camps in Europe, near Skopje in Macedonia. At the end of the shooting, Czech director Miloš Forman calls him to New York to replace him at Columbia University. Editing of Time of the Gypsies will be finished there.
After much contemplation, it's in English that he shoots his next film: Arizona Dream. One of his students at Columbia University gives him a script about the American dream. But in the meantime, the war starts raging in the Balkans, and far from his family, Emir cannot work any more. The shooting turns into a nightmare, and the film takes on darker tones…
Murat, Emir Kusturica's father, dies of an heart attack soon after the family house in Sarajevo is sacked. The family finds refuge in Montenegro. After this experience, Emir feels he needs to get back to his country to tell to the Westerners the story of his country. He starts his most ambitious opus: Underground. Based on a scenario written by Dušan Kovačević, Yugoslav great theatre author, he draws the story of 50 years of his country, since WW2 to the recent days. In a burlesque form, taking some tricks from the greatest masters, the film is highly baroque and colourful. The background, however, seems ambiguous to those who are partially familiar with the subject. Feeling that he fulfilled his “duty”, but also that he wasn't understood, Emir Kusturica thinks of retiring from cinema (see the polemics initiated by French intellectuals… His second Golden Palm remains nevertheless as the most significant of his career, and adds his name among the greatest directors of all times.
Quickly enough, Emir Kusturica reconsiders his decision and chooses to change the tone, making lighter subjects and finishing with “happy endings”: in Black Cat, White Cat and Super 8 Stories, you feel the optimism even if every day life is not always perfect. Optimism can also be seen on stage as Emir rejoins his friend Dr. Nele Karajlić and others in Zabranjeno Pušenje, re-baptised under their English translation: No Smoking Orchestra. Emir composes, plays and tours with the band. The success of the concerts is impressive, from South America to Japan.
Emir return behind the camera for a new long shooting : Life is a miracle took one year and a half for shooting, and Emir fell in love with the landscapes of Mokra Gora : the nature has almost the leading role, with gorgeous colours and impressive views. Once finished, Emir built there an ethno-village : Küstendorf, aiming at opening a cinema school, local crafts, guest houses, restaurants…
Back in Cannes in may 2005, Emir Kusturica is chosen to be the president of the jury of the festival. He returns after in Küstendorf to shoot his next film (Promise me this). In 2007, he is raised chevalier des arts et des lettres by French culture minister Renaud Donnedieu de vabre.
Beyond the prestigious prizes his films have gathered in different film festivals in the world, Emir Kusturica has also been awarded for his career :