The duellist - Interview in British newspaper The Guardian, 23 april 1999

He duels, he brawls, he helps cows to give birth. And in between he makes films. Serbian director Emir Kustirica talks to Fiachra Gibbons about politics, his art - and the war. When he's not brawling on the streets of Belgrade with men who make Arkan look like Mary Poppins, challenging people to duels, or playing in Serbian rock bands, Emir Kusturica is winning the Palme D'Or at Cannes. No other director has ever won it twice, not even Fellini. Kusturica idolises, maybe even fancies himself as a Fellini. But the pudgy little Italian would never have had the balls to be Emir Kusturica.

Few would. It is no exaggeration to say that a lot of people would like to see the maker of Underground and The Time of the Gypsies dead. He is, in fact, lucky to be alive. In 1993 he challenged Vojislav Šešelj, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Radical party, now part of Milošević's government, to a duel. He said it should be in the heart of Belgrade, at high noon, with the weapon of his choosing. Šešelj refused, saying he ”he didn't want to be accused of the murder of an artist”. Two years later he punched Nebojsa Pajkić, leader of the equally bloodcurdling New Serbian Right movement, to the ground. Pajkić's wife battered Kusturica with her handbag, a gift from her “dear friend” Radovan Karadžić, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs who is now wanted for war crimes. The feuds do not end with his political opponents. Many have been with former friends. ”Kusturica is the greatest traitor to Bosnia” one told me. Another said he was a ”war criminal, a Chetnik arselicker, a puppet of Milošević… It makes me puke to think of him.” The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Livy even made a film to attack him. ”You will not find anyone in Sarajevo with a good word for him,” he said. I did. Several actually. All spoke of his courage, his integrity and his temper. ”He is no one's puppet, least of all Milošević's,” said a former colleague from Sarajevo TV. ”People who say that are blind with hatred. He has always gone his own way. He has a powerful sense of humour. You know, it is so sharp it frightens, that's why he makes enemies.

The survivors of his exhausting shoots are equally divided. ”Emir kills himself for his films. And if you work for him he will kill you too.” He has had at least one breakdown; more a burn-out actually, during the making of his brilliant but shambolic American debut, Arizona Dreams. Kusturica is a man perpetually on the point of combustion.

We met the day Nato bombed the convoys of Kosovan refugees and blamed it on the Serbs. I toyed for a moment with the idea of not mentioning the war when he barrelled in, a great bearded bear with a half-chewed cigar sticking out of his mouth like a Balkan Castro. You can see him carrying a Kalashnikov as easily as a camera until you look into his eyes. They are the largest, softest, brown eyes I've ever seen on a man. There is something sad and very vulnerable in them. If I were a woman, I'd have gone weak at the knees. So tell me, how does it feel to belong to the most hated nation on earth - after the English, of course. A plate smashed on to the floor behind us. He didn't laugh. Instead his head dropped into his hands. ”Terrible, terrible, terrible! I think this might be the end of the world, you know. Tell me, why bomb bridges?” ”Listen, my heart cannot resist these Albanian refugees, the pictures of fathers, mothers and crying kids, but I also had my heart broken watching Serbian refugees leaving Croatia. Nearly half a million of them were kicked out of Knin and Krajina, with American backing, in one weekend. And do you know what Le Monde called it? 'Self-motivated ethnic cleansing'. There is a human level here that is being ignored.

It is incredible. Nato didn't help the Albanians and they have only strengthened Milošević. This Robin Fook. Who is this Robin Gook?… 'We don't want your Serb crocodile tears about the attack on the convoys,' he was saying on the news today. The English nation are a gentle nation, whom I greatly admire, but this man is a small, hairy muppet. How can you let him represent you ?” I tell him that despite his gnomic looks, Cook is considered a Casanova. ”You mean women want to have sex with him? How could they take him into their beds ? What kind of women have you in England? I would rather go with a goat.” And he laughs his great soft laugh. ”I'm sorry, I do not mean to be disrespectful,” and he waves his hand like an apologetic pasha.

Kusturica is a former Sarajevan rocker and TV satirist, of mixed Serb and Muslim blood, who clings to forlorn hope of a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. Kusturica is embarrassed by his reputation, but unapologetic. ”I am very impulsive and very stupid sometimes, but I am very clean.” He's not just passionate - there is a generosity of thought and spirit about him. ”My son 1) is now a big Serb because of Nato, but there is not the blood of one nation of Yugoslavia that does not flow through him. The stupid thing is that Serbia is the only one which is multi-ethnic. Most of the rest are ethnically-cleansed mini-states. Not a single Serb survives in Croatia. And now the cowboys are killing us. Nearly 40%, you know, are not Serbs - Croats, Hungarians, Muslims, Greeks.” I say there are a lot less Albanians now. ”That is Milošević. Serbia is not Milošević, although Nato are now turning him into a saint. The west have made him into this Orwellian character and they try to play Orwellian games with him. But Milošević can only play at being a Slav, or a peasant. They are turning him into Tito who stood up to Stalin in 1948. And, of course, we have this problem in us that we like resisting. The Serbs are not a nation of murderers. They have contributed so much to western culture; Nobel prizes, five world champion basketball teams, and what about the physicist Nikola Tesla? His work on the ionosphere made it possible for Cruise missiles now to drop on Belgrade.

You know, I have a friend, Milo Djukanović 2), who we democrats have great hopes of against Milošević, but the bombs have minimised him. But you know the cowboys, they must win. I was reading an article by an American Democratic senator who said the war was a big mistake, it should never have happened - but we must win! I live in Normandy, and the next day I was helping a cow give birth. She couldn't do it herself. I had to pull it out. I wondered what kind of worl d is it that a cow has to be helped to do the most natural thing. Are we like that cow that we cannot think for ourselves any more? All we are are good receptors to the new religion of Hollywood and CNN. I am very scared. And I don't know if I can stay here and pay taxes for bombs to be dropped on my son.

We are in the darkened corner of an empty room at the back of Paris's oldest Jewish restaurant. Portraits of long-dead rabbis and their beards stare out of the gloom, reproaching us. I wonder for a while if he is trying to draw down the mantle of the Holocaust on his own people. But does Kusturica have a people any more? ”You don't know what the war did to a mixed family like mine. I started moving towards Serbia when I felt my country, Yugoslavia, was being taken away from me. My feeling of nationality was not as strong as those around me who were attaching themselves to these absurb new entities… And, of course, I could not speak Bosnian,” he drawls. Bosnian, like Croat, is an artificial creation, presently being “purified” of anything that smacks of the old Serbo-Croat. The mortar attack on the marketplace in Sarajevo was the turning point for him. Kusturica claims it was self-inflicted to bring the west into the war. ”I rang one of my friends and he said, 'I don't know who is worse, the Serbs shelling us from the mountains, or the Muslims defending us.' It was like we were tearing out our limbs as well as our brains.

Which is why his “betrayal” is so bitterly felt in his home town and why he will always be seen by some as a lackey of Belgrade. ”I am not trying to say I'm a genius, but Underground was the strongest attack there has been on Milošević. It is about a man who locks his friends in a cellar for 40 years and convinces them that the war is still going on. He uses them, but they still think he is a great guy. And this was shown in every cinema in Serbia.” It is to the Gypsies he now feels his greatest attachment. ”They are the most despised and the free-est people of all. They are hated equally by everybody, yet they have no prejudices themselves. They call their kids after communists and after John F Kennedy. They are medieval but they have mobile phones. I love them, they hold my heart.Gypsies feature in several of his films, including the latest, a rip-roaring comedy called Black Cat, White Cat. Again, he has been attacked for making a comedy while Milošević was still in power.

I loved it. So did Guardian critic Jonathan Romney. ”Every time it slacks for a second someone throws in a goat and several geese,” Romney said. Or someone tries unsuccessfuly to hang themselves - a motif of his work. Why? ”I had a teacher in Prague who told me you tell a good movie from a bad one by the fact that in good ones every character look s like they are running out of gravity. I thought, why don't I really make people levitate, like Chagall?” he says, pointing to the nodding rabbis. ”That is why maybe I'm a troublemaker making movies, because each shot has to be for me an original. It murders me.

In the flesh, he is like one of his wild heroes, only more so - part god, part peasant, part philosopher. Throw in the psychopath and he'd be the perfect well-rounded Slav, as he might say. And it is the Slav mind that really worries him. The Russian one in particular. ”I am shit scared where this will all end. As Bismark says, Italy always betrays and Russia always comes late. Russia to me is now like a beggar. In one hand it has nuclear weapons, in the other a begging bowl. If it all blows, it will be from an irrational thing.” When I bring up his most recent feud, with the Serb director Goran Paskaljević, thunder breaks over his face and he looks like all of the great Slav bogeymen rolled into one, from Rasputin to Ivan the Terrible. It is only then that I notice the scar twitch under his right eye. Paskaljević claims Kusturica tried to stop his film Powderkeg, about a day in the life of Belgrade, from being shown at the Venice Film Festival. Kusturica admits to a bit of gamesmanship but says this was ”only after he started attacking me at every turn, accusing me of being a mouthpiece of Milošević just to get attention for himself. I did not try to stop his film. I simply told the producer we shared that he would have to choose between me and that jerk in future. You know, the world is full of assholes. Paskaljević is one. Here in France we have Bernard-Henri Levy. He is a vulture. He is now somewhere safe near Kosovo being a 'witness'. I think he was dying to be a witness at Clinton's meeting with Lewinsky in the Oval Office.” The girl from Renault wants him to wind up. He's making an advert. ”I have to live. My films don't make a lot of money and since the war I have a lot of people to support.” He doesn't want to go. Two thoughts have been bothering him. ”You know, with the billions they have spent on the war so far they could have taken every Albanian and Serb in Kosovo to the Bahamas, and they could have listened to some reggae, sang, drank, f and be happy. Our industry and economy could have been rebuilt and everyone would have kissed each other.

Then his head drops into his hands again. ”Kosovo is where the Battle Of the Field Of The Blackbirds happened. The Serbs sacrificed themselves to save Europe from the Turks. It was inconclusive, and many lives were lost on both sides. I fear this will happen again.” He gets up and gives out a sigh: ”I am never going to make another interview. And I feel with the war I should not make another film.” I tell him he has threatened that before but still came back for more. I tell him I can't wait to see his new film - which he has yet to start - DM Thomas's sprawling White Hotel, from Dennis Potter's script. ”But I'm serious this time,” he says, looking genuinely hurt. ”Remember the next time you go to war,” he says finally, stretching out his shovel of a hand to me, ”please get a better looking foreign minister.” And he sticks his stogie back in his mouth and smiles the cheesiest grin. ”And the next time you want someone to write against me in the Guardian, let me do it. I am my best enemy.

1) a pop star, who played at the concerts in Belgrade to defy the bombing
2) the president of Montenegro
en/itv_99-04-23_guardian.txt · Last modified: 2007/03/19 23:14 by matthieu1