“I am the nobody of the Balkans” Interview in French magazine L’Evénement du Jeudi, july 2000

The Bosnian director replies to all his detractors, to the ones who give lessons, to the ones who try to make films, to the satisfied intellectuals… Meeting with a revolted wandering. Bosnian, Muslim, born in Sarajevo, this brilliant director doesn’t accept any compromise. Even if French intellectuals reproached him for “being sold” to Milošević. On this polemic, on his work, on the war, on the tour with his rock band of Sarajevo, Emir Kusturica talks. And he doesn’t mince his words.

  • Do you remember what a journalist had written about you: “nobody from nowhere” ?
    • Emir Kusturica : Yes. “Nobody, coming from nowhere”… An American newspaper, “Time magazine”, had written that in 1981 when my film Do you remember Dolly Bell ? had been prized at the Venice festival. Historically, it was correct: when you come from the Balkan mountains to win a price in Venice, you are really nobody, from nowhere, the guy nobody knows. Journalists need to do a little humour, to write things people will remember. And if it’s insulting, they don’t care. Anyway, it’s very motivating to be nobody, from nowhere. Today, I’m welcome in festivals. I had other rewards, I am “somebody”. But, each time I make a film, I stake myself. I try to be again Mister Nobody, as if I had never held a camera.
  • Four years ago, you were already well known, you had met Francis Ford Coppola at the airport of Nice, right before the Festival of Cannes. You’ve had, in front of a camera of television, an astonishing non-dialogue : you, trying to speak to him; him, not knowing you, ignoring your films, sending you back to this image of “nobody”…
    • EK : I was very uneasy. In fact, each time I force myself to be polite, I suffer. With Coppola, I resisted to the temptation to be rude with him, but I dropped. He didn’t want to recognize me, I think. Fortunately, I don’t take myself as seriously as he does. But I was astonished that he had never heard about a single of my films! Now, in fact, I don’t care of Coppola. I’ve liked Coppola before, I looked at his films with the mouth open, the eyes wide open, when I was 19 years old. Today, Coppola makes business. He doesn’t have time anymore to be a director. He must be very unhappy.
  • You are 45 years old, you have prizes, success. Do you imagine becoming arrogant, unable to recognize the others ?
    • EK : I make everything not to become Coppola. I am recognized, which has great advantages when you have to find funds for a new film. But, besides, I pay attention not to become my own institution. I expose myself each minute of my life. I make the actor. I play music. Look : tell me why someone of my age would join a rock band and make a tour, in a bus, with hundreds of kilometres every day to play guitar, the evening, on a stage, with his friends… Because I don’t want to be Coppola! With his fat belly, he couldn’t play rock. But seriously now: to be with the No Smoking Orchestra, to find the buddies I had played with when I was young, is a proof that I’m not yet fixed. It’s a pleasure. A correction, because, as a young man, I was not a star of the discotheques, not very easy with the dance and the girls… My son is drummer in the band, it’s also a way of being with him, of compensating for the fact that he saw me little when I was making my films. It’s a proof of vitality. When I was 20, the punk wave, which was coming from the West, arrived in our country - transformed. For once, people spoke normally, really. We had grown under the regime of Tito, in its absurdity. I’ve never disavowed what the punks brought.
  • Your meeting with Coppola seemed to be representing the relationships between American cinema and Europe. His arrogance, was it the one of America ?
    • EK : Yes, it’s an American arrogance to be unaware of the rest of the world. This is arrogance: you’ll find in Iran directors incomparably better than in America, but Hollywood has such a power that the Americans don’t care of it. At the same time, we shouldn’t be unfair: there are good directors in the United States. Actually, I believe that the industry of the American cinema is frightened. With the technological revolution, soon, a 16 year old kid will be able to make a perfectly clean film. What will make the difference, will be the message, the artistic direction. The Americans have no more artists in Hollywood: they are merchants who fear not to be the center of the world anymore. They have only one fear : to see themselves loosing market shares. To keep their positions, they start manufacturing different films, like “Magnolia”. They give an Oscar to “American Beauty” because, even when a film criticizes the “American dream”, they want to benefit from it. The American actors are often good, better than Europeans: I could realize it when I shot Arizona Dream (with Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway). When you propose to these actors to play in artistic films, they are happy. Perhaps because they disgust themselves to be kept confined in pathetic blockbusters. They get bored on the set of the films they have to make. They watch their life, they know that they lie. Then, they make the promotion, they say: “Ah, it was so good, it was fantastic!”… “Fantastic”, I hate this word, with the nasal sound that dominates. They lie!
  • French actors do lie too in promotion…
    • EK : All the actors are fucking lying! I believe that lie is a question of survival, for the actors as well as for the others. They won’t say that such director is bad if they want to continue to make films. Actors lie to live, like the Gypsies! But, in Hollywood, it goes further: the heroes that they invent are nothing. Real nothing. We see through them. Nothing can catch your look, your spirit or your feeling. There is no taste. They’re afraid of the taste, because it can frighten a potential public. At the same time, I hate speaking about America in general, because I also like this country, would it be only because a certain Hollywood has modelled my love of the cinema: Douglas Sirk, for the melodramas; Lubitsch, Capra, for the comedies… Just like I enjoyed making Arizona Dream playing, precisely, with the American myths - Faye Dunaway, Jerry Lewis… Because one of my favourite writers, one of the persons who inspire me is Raymond Carver. I don’t like the noisy America we see too frequently. For me, America is loneliness, weakness of the individuals, nonsense you find in the novels of Carver…
  • An America against Hollywood ?
    • EK : What frightens me in the dominating cinema in Hollywood, is the rationality of its production. Everything is made to provoke awaited, formatted reactions. It’s like industrial tomato producers; beautiful colours, beautiful roundness, but without savour. I take time to make a film, I need to rest also. I let grow my tomatoes as a craftsman. As a film maker, I like to see the architecture of a film more than the precision of the history. I like to be disturbed, annoyed if needed, but to see a true human existence. I like when there are spaces, freedom… I need a true author attitude… From this point of view, I’m rather happy with the world cinema. Despite everything, I liked “American beauty”. I enjoyed more discovering this loser than seeing Bruce Willis carrying his void on the screen. I liked “Festen”, the Danish film - this idea that hell hides behind a smooth paradise. “Festen”, this is also Strindberg, note, something which comes from far away in the Scandinavian culture.
  • You connect cinema and literature, cinema and music. When we look at your work, we see films as much dreamed as narrated. We find in you a sort of interaction between image, music, onirism and absurd…
    • EK : Words, sounds, image… We don’t know which one starts. One of my problems, when I work, is the excitement. I can like one of my films, even if the dialogues are not perfect. But each image must inspire me something. I think of Black Cat, White Cat. The music is not there to accompany the characters, but these characters are music. My characters carry sometimes opposite emotional states. Kiss and kill, in extreme cases, there is no big difference. Between hatred and love, there is a terrible proximity. I don’t have pacified feelings. You know, I come from the Balkans, a place of the world where an oniric tradition prevails, particularly in painting. We have a primary energy that comes from paganism, lyricism, tenderness, which you don’t perceive at first, but that I make pass in my films. A Balkan paganism which is powerful, tender and distracting… And, at the same time, we have a philosophy which insists on the importance of the sacrifice and which comes from the orthodox Christianism, certainly. We must sacrifice ourselves to reach something beautiful. To understand us, it’s necessary to have all this in mind. It’s necessary to have read Ivo Andrić, Miloš Cernjanski, to speak about my Yugoslavia. If the French intellectuals had read them, or if they had understood them, perhaps they would have said less stupidities on our tragedy…
  • You’ve been on the first line of this tragedy, of the polemics on the Yugoslav tragedy…
    • EK : Because I couldn’t stand that people come to tell me what occurred in my country. I hated this attitude of angels of the Parisian intellectuals claiming to give me lessons on the Balkans, on Yugoslavia, on Bosnia, where I had lived for thirty years. I deeply believe that this arrogance - this intellectual arrogance – leads the world to its ruin. One day, Western Europe discovers Yugoslavia, decides that Serbs are manslaughters, affects to ignore all what could have occurred before. Everything didn’t start with Milošević ! There has been Tito, his regime, the nonsense it generated… We’re speaking here of a ground that many armies have crossed without ever stopping; we’re speaking of a space where we like what is far and where we hate what is close: the Serbs are looking towards Moscow, the Croats towards the Vatican, the Muslims towards Istanbul, when all their hates are under the range of the guns. We’re speaking of territories which, from a certain point of view, are still in the Middle Age. Insufficiently “christianized”, pacified, modelled in respect of the rules, of the codex. Basically, we’re still in a paganism which explains the way people killed each other. But, at the same time, these pagan territories gave great men, great works, in art, literature, sport; they deeply enriched the civilization. Considering, for example, the Serbs simply as rude people is an unbearable, idiotic arrogance!
  • You were labelled “pro-Serb”, particularly at the time of Underground
    • EK : That a philosopher, Alain Finkielraut, could speak of “americanized pro-Serbian propaganda” about this film, which is the opposite of the Hollywood propaganda, is finally tragic. I live in France, a country I love, and of which I appreciate the fact that it considers culture and cinema seriously : in your country, intellectuals attach importance to the works and to the artists. There is the tragedy: it’s in the name of this principle – that works have a sense – that my film was attacked by this philosopher, who hadn’t even seen it! And it’s the American journalists who defended Underground – who loved it - while denouncing the lightness of the French intellectuals… Underground told the story of a man who makes the others believe that the war continues. We could have seen a fable on this Yugoslavia which profited from the cold war (because Tito was between both sides, built his power while playing on this neutrality), and which refuses to admit that this time is over. Speak to normal people in Serbia. They haven’t realized that the cold war was over! Underground showed people who don’t know that time has passed. It’s the film in which I’ve invested myself the most…
  • You’ve been reproached to have shot Underground with the help of the regime of Belgrade
    • EK : Underground was financed by Mr Francis Bouygues, who I thank every day in thought. This film could have been made in fifty cities; but there’s only one Belgrade, with its buildings, its zoo, its atmosphere. There was only one city where I could make this film on this country, Yugoslavia, on these people… I was not going to invent another one. Everything else is propaganda… We have a song, with the No Smoking Orchestra, which is entitled “Devil in the Business Class”… It’s about propaganda, false evidences which impose themselves. After all, perhaps that the devil also is a victim of the propaganda and the media…
  • You were born in Sarajevo, as a Bosnian Muslim. We could have though you would be on the side of your birth place when it was bombed, that you would have said “I’m one of them”. You weren’t expected with Milošević…
    • EK : I’m not with Milošević ! Milošević, I simply said one day that he wasn’t a “fascist”, that it was necessary to find another word to define him, less reducer. Monarcho-autocrato-Communist, something like that. And I tried to point out the historical context. Nothing else. What I am has nothing to do with Milošević. I am Yugoslav - today, citizen of Montenegro - I speak Serbian. I am of this culture, this literature, this imaginary. I am all this without Milošević, before Milošević. My family was converted to Islam in order to survive two centuries ago. That doesn’t forge my identity. Yes, I am from Sarajevo. I shouted, at the beginning of the war: Some mad dogs are bombing my city”. It was in the newspaper “Le Monde”. It isn’t me who denied Sarajevo… It’s the Muslim regime of Izetbegović which rejected me. It’s necessary to stop with this Western attitude according to which the Bosnians were all charming pacifists who wanted a multi-ethnic regime. I will tell you my story. At the beginning of the conflict, my father was travelling to Montenegro. One month after the beginning of the war, the soldiers of Izetbegović invaded his house; then claimed to have found bombs, kalachnikovs; started to explain that my father - a veteran of the partisans wars against the Nazis - was a tchetnik. Then the official propaganda of the regime launched a hate campaign against me because I refused to simplify the conflict, because I pointed out history. I will never go with propaganda, the war in Yugoslavia has nothing to do with the Second World war, the massacres of the Jews, the Gypsies, and also the Serbs! In Sarajevo, the new regime encouraged a whole generation to hate my name. And, to finish, after the Dayton agreements, the charming boys of the nice Muslim regime of Izetbegović came to destroy the family house of my wife. They destroyed our house (he searches in his bag, shows a picture). A house built when the family of my wife, Croats and Slovenians, came to Sarajevo to build the rail road, under the Austro-Hungarian empire. Today, it’s destroyed. That is ethnic purification. They destroy your house to make you understand you can’t return any more. I won’t return any more to Sarajevo. In this war, 250.000 Yugoslavian left the city, driven away by Izetbegović - replaced by 250.000 Muslims that the Serbs had away from the countryside. You want to know where I am from ? I am one of these. I am one of the 250.000 Yugoslavian who are not in Sarajevo any more, who lost against all nationalisms. This is my identity… I am from a country which doesn’t exist any more.
  • Has the fact of losing your country reinforced your artist strength? Today, you just have your work to define your territory…
    • EK : After the The polemic 'Underground' of Underground, I thought of stopping making films. The “Village Voice” wrote: “I was happy to read that he won’t make a film anymore” said the journalist, “because, to make a film like this, you must loose your country !” Finally, maybe I’m not a “nobody” anymore, but I am from nowhere. I am somebody from nowhere! When I’m with my friends musicians, I say to myself that my country is the circus, the music, the moving show ; the cabaret is my home… It’s as important as a country. I spent ten years suffering, living with this loss. Now, it’s enough… If Western intellectuals, to show themselves, to be à la mode, need to associate me to a certain regime or another, well, too bad for them. I know the weight of the Western culpability in our tragedy. I know the void of the French intellectuals. They don’t have Sartre, or Malraux any more, no more great causes - just television. They spread out emotional reactions to feed the mode. They did it at the expense of my country. But it doesn’t reach me any more. I put down what I am, where I come from. I won’t go back there because it’s impossible. But perhaps will I film one day a story in the Bosnian war. There were love stories too, in this war. All what happened - what happened to me – is part of me, of what will inspire me now.
  • What will be the subject of your next film ?
    • EK : It’s called “the nose”. One evening, an actor is going to perform Cyrano on a stage; but he learns that the nose of his father has been cut, as a revenge against him, the actor implied in a spy business of atomic bomb. Then he will revenge, deliver his fiancée that the others took in hostage and, during this time, his best friend has to take care of the spectators that came to see the play. There will be some Russian Mafia inside.
  • You love the strange characters and you know how to make people love them… Your heroes of Time of the Gypsies who sell children. The father of When father was away on business which terrorizes his family. Marko, the bad guy of Underground… And, in the literature you quote, you seem to love Benia Krik, the hero of Isaac Babel, the king of the Jewish bandits of Odessa under the tsar !
    • EK : I don’t judge my characters. I have an anarchistic, instinctive feeling - certainly what pushed me to expose myself, to tell my truth on Bosnia, even if I have to pay for it all my life. When I film Gypsies, I don’t have problems of morality. I grew up in the suburbs of Sarajevo. There, heroes didn’t come from the books. They were rude, bad, violent. I didn’t like reading - until I meet Babel, his “Tales of Odessa”, and this character, Benia Krik. I invented a world for myself; a parallel world, in which Babel plays an important part. Its Benia Krik inspired to me for Black Cat, White Cat - this idea of the bad hero who wants to marry his sister. To choose a bad guy as guardian angel, this is still my Balkan ambiguity!
  • What is the first film you saw that made a big impression to you ?
    • EK : “l'Atalante” by Jean Vigo. It’s my dearest film. I was 13, 14 years old… I was working for the cinémathèque and, in exchange, I had tickets for the screenings. “L'Atalante” ! There are films bigger, stronger, but it’s the first one to catch me. There were incredible connexions between sound and image.
  • Your other important films ?
    • EK : Those of Fellini, the biggest master. Renoir : “La règle du jeu”, the model of what should be modern cinema. “La grande illusion”, that never gets old… My studies in the cinema school of Prague, where I was taught irony, detachment and usage of absurd, impressed me also. My end of study film was called Guernica. The story of a a Jewish boy, who is taken by his father to the 1937 Universal Exhibition in Paris, discovers Picasso’s painting. A few years later, the Nazis arrive, persecute the Jews. The father wants to comfort his son, and says to him: “They want to check us because we have a big nose”. You see, already, the nose… When his family is taken away, the boy stays alone at his home, and looks at the family photographs. And he cuts the noses on all the photographs. He sticks them together. And he calls it Guernica. When I came back from Prague, I believed that with a camera, we could change the world. Then I understood that, what makes a director, his first material, it’s the life. If he has stories, if he has wills, the film will come. More than everything, he needs this energy, that you have – or not.
  • You live in France since many years…
    • EK : But I don’t speak French very well – I never stay long enough here. But, when I’m in my house in Normandy, I really feel home. My daughter is in high school, she speaks French.
  • What do you think of French cinema ?
    • EK : It suffers a psychological obsession: everything must be said, expressed. But there are exceptions… “Western” by Manuel Poirier. These two half-tramps who cross Brittany searching for a girl… They came from a Bunuel film. They sought power in the existence. Also “La Haine”. When this guy made “La Haine”, I felt good. They were real people, real problems, real dramas. Not all these discussions on what it was and what it will be. Real suburbs of Paris, real heroes facing their life and their emotions in a dramatic context. This is what French cinema needs.
  • You are now an actor of French cinema with Leconte, in The widow of Saint-Pierre.
    • EK : I loved this experience. Leconte is someone nice. He asked me to restrain myself – so the language was not a problem. I liked to play this character who killed, without being a killer.
  • Some months ago, Patrice Leconte led the battle of the French directors against the critics. What is your position ?
    • EK : I can’t put myself in it. I would be in a bad position to fight against the French critics, who receive me pretty well in general. Someone like me, coming from nowhere, could access to the world thanks to the French cinema, as a whole. The other independent directors, coming from abroad, like Kiarostami, are in the same case. Basically, I believe that good films make good critics. It’s the same environment, you can’t escape it.
  • Are you optimistic for the future of cinema ?
    • EK : Yes, for the films I quoted. I believe that the creators have a future, that the human beings who want to tell a story, express what they have inside, will continue their adventure. One day, I was in Lorient, a black guy came to me, and said: “We love you in Africa”. It’s great to see that somebody in Africa could understand your emotions, your problems, the way I translated them, me, the “nobody” of the Balkans. This is precisely that, the language. I’m absolutely persuaded that a film is a work, the emanation of the energy of his creator. I suffer on my films. But they are my expression. I’m now part of these people who could calm down. With some compromises, perhaps could I be a personality of Hollywood, have an Oscar. When I made Arizona Dream, I paid great attention to avoid that. I didn’t want to respect the rules of Hollywood. If I had made differently, my life could have taken a way much more traditional. But, instinctively, I change direction. When I feel I will soften, I enter in some quarrels with important people, producers… They make things which offend me, I say to them they are pigs. I don’t give up – like on Bosnia. In fact, my force comes from my opposition. Not my anger. I must remain socially unstable, not to become a bastard.

Interview by Claude Askolovitch and Florence Assouline, translated by Matthieu Dhennin

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